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The New York love story of a beautiful heiress and a wealthy young architect, captured in a famous John Singer Sargent painting
In Love, Fiercely Jean Zimmerman re-creates the glittering world of Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. Contemporaries of the Astors and Vanderbilts, they grew up together along the shores of bucolic Staten Island, linked by privilege—her grandparents built the world’s fastest clipper ship, his family owned most of Murray Hill. Theirs was a ...
The New York love story of a beautiful heiress and a wealthy young architect, captured in a famous John Singer Sargent painting
In Love, Fiercely Jean Zimmerman re-creates the glittering world of Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. Contemporaries of the Astors and Vanderbilts, they grew up together along the shores of bucolic Staten Island, linked by privilege—her grandparents built the world’s fastest clipper ship, his family owned most of Murray Hill. Theirs was a world filled with mansions, balls, summer homes, and extended European vacations.
Newton became a passionate preserver of New York history and published the finest collection of Manhattan maps and views in a six-volume series. Edith became the face of the age when Daniel Chester French sculpted her for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, a colossus intended to match the Statue of Liberty’s grandeur. Together Edith and Newton battled on behalf of New York’s poor and powerless as reformers who never themselves wanted for anything. Through it all, they sustained a strong-rooted marriage.
From the splendid cottages of the Berkshires to the salons of 1890s Paris, Love, Fiercely is the real story of a world long relegated to fiction.
Demonstrating the same flare as in her previous biography, Zimmerman (The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty) pays respect to the lives and times of Edith Minturn Stokes and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. Edith and Newton, as he was called, who married in 1895, were born in New York to immense privilege and became patrons of the arts and advocates for immigrant rights. The two knew each other as children and eventually fell in love. Newton, a respected architect in his own right, pulled together a massive multivolume documentary history, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, and Edith worked for many charitable organizations. Zimmerman chronicles their personal lives and love, from the heights of financial success to the depths of deteriorating health and wealth, while also encapsulating the era in which they lived. VERDICT With an impressive amount of research behind every page, Zimmerman manages to capture the sweeping drama of the turn of the century as well as the compelling story of a couple who knew how to love, fiercely. Her superb pacing and gripping narrative will appeal to all who enjoy history, biography, and real-life romance.—Library Journal
I saw her for the first time in a work of art. John Singer Sargent painted Edith Minturn Stokes in 1897, one of the soaring, seven-foot-tall canvases that made the American-born artist the most sought-after portraitist of his day.
This portrait was different, because Edith Minturn was different.
I remember encountering the painting in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a room hung with a half-dozen Sargent women, the Wyndham sisters posed against banks of peonies, Charlotte Louise Burckhardt pinching a rose between two delicate fingers, Mrs. Hugh Hammersley in a gold-trimmed gown of dusty-pink velvet.
Marvelous paintings, to be sure. But the subjects, all of them, to a woman, of their time. Remote. Victorian females, belles of the belle époque. I could admire them, but they could not engage me, not in the way that Edith did. Her face made me stop in front of the painting, in front of her. Sargent had caught a quality of gleaming freshness that rendered his subject disturbingly alive.
More than anything else, I recognized her. The sense of insouciance and independence that swirled around her was familiar. She reminded me of myself as a thirty-year-old. Edie Minturn—that’s what they called her when she was young—could have been my contemporary. In the painting, she embodies the quality of being stingingly, vivaciously alive. Her brother had nicknamed her “Fiercely” in her youth, and that was how she first appeared to me.
I had actually gone to the Met in search of the other person in the Sargent portrait, Edith’s husband, I. N. Phelps Stokes. He was the author of one of the most astonishing books ever created on the early history of a city, the sprawling, labyrinthine and maddening tome called The Iconography of Manhattan Island. A massive undertaking, six volumes, 3,254 pages, collecting together everything that would otherwise have been lost about early Manhattan, pictures and drawings and maps, a priceless repository of our knowledge of New York City.
Obscure as the Iconography was to modern readers—it exists today primarily on the shelves of research libraries—I fell in love with its strange, postmodernist attempt to encompass a place fully within the pages of a book. It reminded me of something out of Borges’s famous infinite library, or of a trope by the comedian Steven Wright, about a map that grew to the same size as the place it was attempting to chart. I sought to find out all I could about the remarkable man who had created this huge, baggy monster of a book.
In the Sargent painting, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes stands behind his wife, caught in a skein of shadow. By far the most arresting figure in the portrait is the woman. In reviews and notices, and in the public’s view, the husband figured hardly at all.
The circumstances of the portrait were thus. On their wedding day, in August 1895, both groom and bride were a well-ripened twenty-eight, relatively ancient for marriage in that period. Two years later, in 1897, they interrupted their sojourn in Paris (a “honeymoon” that would last almost three years) and traveled to London. On a sunny afternoon in June, Newton and Edith presented themselves at Sargent’s studio in Tite Street.
Obsessive about costume, Sargent selected an gown of blue satin for his subject to wear. Edie dressed herself, and the artist began. It gradually became clear that something was wrong. The great man painted, the subject posed. But Sargent realized he was missing it, missing her. After repeated sittings, he had something of the dress, the face. But the elements did not go together. The parts did not add up to a whole.
Finally, one day, Edith and Newton arrived at the studio for a sitting in what passed for their street clothes. They had been around town all morning. Afterward, it was said they had come from tennis, but this turns out not to be true. Edith’s complexion flushed with exertion. Glowing, as the euphemism has it, perspiring or, more candidly, sweating.
Sargent pulled up, transfixed by the image she offered. Beginning again, he depicted Edith as he had none of his subjects before, in an informal, modern ensemble, caught in the moment. He captured the essence of a woman who was truly different from the ladies he’d previously painted, in their silks and satins, posed in fancy drawing rooms. He must have known the picture would resonate with her, that she would accept his unorthodox interpretation. Yet the finished portrait set off a flurry of debate in its day, recognized as a depiction of something new under the sun.
Even though I had gone on pilgrimage to the painting in order to find him, and discovered her instead, I gradually came to see the portrait not as I first encountered it, as a painting of a singular woman, but one that told the story of a couple, and a time—Manhattan at the turn of the last century. From the year of their birth, 1867, to the year of their marriage, 1895, Edith and Newton Stokes lived in a nation swept up by the one of history’s greatest explosions of wealth, power, creativity and empire. During that remarkable span of time, twenty-five million newcomers from other shores poured into the country, Bell invented the telephone, Edison developed electric light and railroad tycoon Leland Stanford drove the golden spike into the ground at Promontory Point. Eight states were added to the Union. Great fortunes were either created or extended.
Edith and Newton were New York City to the bone. He, raised in an Italianate residence at Madison Avenue and 37th Street, which after his time there would become J. P. Morgan’s townhouse and then a celebrated museum of the arts. She, born a little farther afield, in still countrified Staten Island. They were in love and in Manhattan, which represents an unparalleled state of bliss. They led not so much independent as interdependent lives. Newton, the man in the shadows, was an antiquarian and aesthete who created a masterpiece, his life’s work, the Iconography. Edith too became accomplished, though in quite a different sense. I saw her first in a Sargent painting, but most of Gilded Age America encountered her beauty in the visage of a colossal statue, a figure representing “the Republic,” which adorned the entrance of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
Icon and iconographer. A couple, a place, a time. Edith and Newton would last forty years together, a crucial stretch of a burgeoning country’s history. They reached great heights, experienced much the age had to offer in the way of wealth and experience, and then lost everything except each other. Theirs might be the greatest love story never told.
June 1871. The sunny four-year-old girl played on the beach, the Atlantic’s sparkling blue water stretching away toward the horizon. In the style of the day she suffered to be thoroughly wrapped in cotton and wool, a miniature bathing costume, long black stockings, a straw hat, a two-piece puffed-sleeve dress of white muslin with a sailor’s collar and ribbon trim, then her mother’s shawl, plus a parasol to top it off. Shielded not only by her clothing but by the presence of her watchful mother, the girl existed in a sunlit sphere of love and restriction, guarded as carefully as an uncut diamond.
Edie Minturn always bridled at restraint. Her mother, Susanna, looked after her next-to-eldest child, Edith, called Edie from birth, as she did her whole brood, including Edith’s elder sister Sarah, always known as May, and her younger sisters Gertrude and Mildred, her older brother Robert and her brother Hugh, the baby of the family. From the beginning Edie stood out, more spirited, headstrong, the child seen as somehow different from the others. One of the games she played on the beach was to try to slip out from under the cover of the parasol that her mother held carefully over her and run shrieking to the waves. No other four-year-old girl ran to the waves. Edie acted more like her adored, charming, lively older brother Robert than her sisters.
This was Staten Island in the years after the Civil War, a place unto itself, separate, rural, immune. “This most beautiful isle of the sea” was the description of a contemporary real estate brochure. More pungent was Thoreau. “I have just come from the beach and I like it very much,” he wrote after a visit to the island’s eastern shore, going on to describe what the four-year-old Edie would have seen: “Everything there is on a grand and generous scale—seaweed, water, and sand; and even the dead fishes, horses and hogs have a rank, luxuriant odor; great shad-nets spread to dry; crabs and horseshoes crawling over the sand; clumsy boats, only for service, dancing like sea-fowl over the surf, and ships afar off going about their business.”
Staten Island floated to the south and west of the island of Manhattan, hugging the coastline, separated from New Jersey by the narrow Raritan River, and from Manhattan by the calm, five-mile-wide waters of the harbor. By accident of history and politics, it had been connected to New York since the Dutch lumped “Staaten Eylandt” with Albany, Long Island, Manhattan and Westchester into the seventeenth-century New Netherland colony.
Centuries before, the Lenape gave the island the name “Enchanted Woods,” and its clayey soil held on to a kind of forest magic. Stands of cedar, gum and tulip trees still marched along the island’s crest. Orchards proliferated, heavy with fruit. Thoreau (again) wrote of “apricots with the girth of plums.” Frederick Law Olmsted cultivated pears there before taking up the trade of landscape architect. The island’s natural abundance furnished a major export, as thousands of tons of beach sand were shipped to Manhattan in the postwar years for the city’s sleek new sidewalks and buildings.
In the 1870s, the island had yet to be annexed to the City of New York—that would happen in 1898—and the old ways lingered. The ancient craft of oystering, pursued by the island’s unusually large free black population, was only just being supplanted by small industries like brickworks and breweries.
Steam ferry service between Staten Island and Manhattan had begun a full five decades before, but the stream of beach visitors was as yet only a trickle. That would soon change in the coming years, so Edie’s protected sphere would be invaded by the hoi polloi hordes, but for now she and her family floated in a green-golden haze, an Eden-like paradise in which children could happily lose themselves.
For Edith Minturn we have only the year she was born, 1867, and the county of her birth, Richmond, the official name for the principality of Staten Island. Birth records for Staten Island were not formally kept until 1880, so no clerk recorded the precise time and locale of Edie’s birth. But her parents lived in Elliottville, near New Brighton, the main hamlet on the northern tip of the island, on Bard Avenue, with an intimate vantage of both Brooklyn and Manhattan’s southern precincts. Based on knowledge of birthing practices at the time, it is likely that Edie drew her first breaths at home, in the childhood house she would occupy until her thirteenth year. During childbirth, Edith’s mother would have come under the care of her own mother, Sarah, as well as a nurse and perhaps a medical practitioner to administer the chloroform that was the latest medical craze.
Thus Edie came into the world, an enchanted girl in an enchanted wood. Adding to the fairy-tale beginning was the fact that her Prince Charming attended to her from the very first.
Enchanted Woods 3
Flying Cloud 13
Madison to the River 34
Big Mary 52
The Howling Swell 69
The Personal as the Political 82
Grand Mistakes 94
Rich and Romantic 105
A Pleasure to Paint Her Portrait 119
The American Girl Herself 136
For Richer or Poorer 158
Smaller Castles 181
Pretty Manners 192
Silent Bearers of Many a Half-Read Message 205
A Fine Object Lesson in Good Construction 220
Something in the Nature of the Marvelous 244
No Other City Will Live in the Future
as New York Will 261
Our Goddess 278
Select Bibliography 290
Posted June 20, 2012
America underwent many changes at the turn of the 19th century. The couple written about were prominent New Yorkers who helped shape the city geographically and socially. This compelling book was written with deep respect for its subjects, and serves as a treasure map for people who like to explore the city.
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Posted May 24, 2014
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