Sister: The Life of Legendary American Interior Decorator Mrs. Henry Parish IIby Apple Parish Bartlett, Susan Bartlett Crater, Deborah Dalfonso, Susan Bartlett Crater
Dorothy May Kinnicutt was born into a patrician New York family in 1910, and her privileged early life was
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This intimate portrait of Mrs. Henry Parish II -- known to friends as Sister -- chronicles one woman's remarkable life and ground-breaking career. In doing so it paints a unique portrait of American high society and recounts the transformation of an art form.
Dorothy May Kinnicutt was born into a patrician New York family in 1910, and her privileged early life was one of the right schools, yacht clubs, coming-out parties, and the Social Register. Compelled to work during the lean years of the Depression, Sister combined her innate design ability and her high-echelon social connections to create an extraordinarily successful interior decorating business. Her firm, Parish-Hadley, served a list of clients that comprised the creme de la creme of American aristocracy, among them Rockefellers, Astors, and Whitneys. For these clients, she was an indispensable presence, both in their salons and in designing them. Sister's style, influenced by her family's summer house in Maine, came to be known as "American country." Its reflection of her deeply felt Yankee roots influenced an entire generation of American decorators.
Sister was an enormously charismatic woman who redefined American design. To the public at large, she was the visionary who helped transform Jacqueline Kennedy's White House from a fusty relic of the fifties into the international symbol of American elegance -- Camelot. To Apple Parish Bartlett and Susan Bartlett Crater, she was a mother and grandmother. Drawing upon Sister Parish's own unpublished memoirs, as well as hundreds of interviews with world-renowned interior decorators and socialities, Bartlett and Crater take readers into the houses -- and the lives -- of the most famous and powerful people of this unforgettable woman's time.
Mario Buatta, Celebrity Interior Designer
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Beginnings: 1910 and Earlier
NEVER IN LIFE has there been such a hideous baby. After staring for days at my scrunched-up face, my sallow skin, my straight brown hair, Father finally pried my eyes openonly to discover that they were a dull brown.
"We'll always dress her in brown," Mother is reported to have said. "It's our only possible hope."
Even my aunt Joan, hopelessly sentimental about every member of our family, admitted that I was hideous.
My birth certificate read Dorothy May Kinnicutt, but, lest you think that the name "Sister" has any ecclesiastical significance, let me hasten to point out that it was immediately hung on me by my three-year-old brother, Frankie. It has not been an easy cross to bear. It has caused considerable confusion. My husband constantly complained about the awkwardness of being married to a woman whom he called Sister. People who don't know me lower their eyes in embarrassment when the Lord's name is taken in vain in my presence. I often receive calls from religious groups asking me if I'd meet refugees at the dock. And when I was asked to help "do" the White House, a newspaper headline announced "Kennedys Pick Nun to Decorate White House." It has not been an easy name, yet it has brought me many a laugh.
I was born by mistake in our house in Morristown, New Jersey. I was supposed to have entered the world properly in our New York house, but Mother and I didn't have time. The date was July 15, 1910, and my premature arrival was one of the last occasionswhen the timetable of our lives would be interrupted for many years to come.
Fifteen days later, I was aboard the Bar Harbor Express, heading toward the first of my summers at Dark Harbor on the island of Islesboro, Maine. The windows of the children's stateroom were draped with white linen sheets, so we wouldn't be contaminated I traveled in a white wicker bassinet with pink ribbonsthe same bassinet that had carried my mother and her mother, the same bassinet that would carry my daughter and her daughter I was receiving, quite unconsciously, my first lesson in good things. Even the simplest wicker basket can become priceless when it is loved and cared for through the generations of a family.
Ours was a close family, physically as well as emotionally. I grew up surrounded by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and, in our family, even second cousins were important. My maternal grandparents, the Bayard Tuckermans, lived just two blocks from us in New York. My paternal grandparents, the Francis Kinnicutts, had a house next to ours in Morristown, around the corner from us in New York City, and we spent the summers in their Dark Harbor home until my younger brothers, Gory and Bayard, came along. When we moved on the island, it was to a house just a few yards away.
A strong sense of family tradition was instilled in me from the beginning. Our American forebears included Cotton Mather and Oliver Wolcott, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and we were told that a strong wire of character stretched from them through all generations of our family. If the wire was strong enough in us, anything we might do would turn out all right.
SUSAN BARTLETT CRATER (Sister's granddaughter): Family and tradition were of the utmost importance to Sister. Her unspoken message was that the familyspecifically, the Tuckermans, from her mother's side; the Kinnicutts, from her father's side; and the Parishes, from Grandpa's sidemattered more than anything.
Family was at the heart of our life during the summers in Maine, where everyone was a cousin of some sort. In Dark Harbor, there continue to be generations of Kinnicutts, plus Tuckerman and Kissel cousins, as well. In the Victorian front parlor at Sister's house, the Summer House, with its brightly painted blue floor and mishmash of faded chintzes, Sister and Harry's history seems to seep out of the wails. Black-and-white photographs of generations of weddings, christenings, and picnics are everywhere. Because the images made one hundred years ago were taken on the same familiar rocky beaches of today, past and present seemed forever intertwined.
Likewise, family names have repeated with each generation. The name Appleton has been carried down from my great-grandmother to my daughter, Eliza. Mum's real name is May Appleton, and when Sister knew Eliza's middle name was to be Appleton, she told us to call her "Little Apple." We ask, "Was it Big Harry or Little Harry? Do you mean Bayard Elkins or Bayard Kinnicutt?" The wire Sister spoke of twists through the names we carry and the places where we live. It was always Sister's hope that this wire would be carefully fostered by each passing generation.
My maternal grandparents, the Bayard Tuckermans, were very social. Annie Tuckerman was a pretty, frail woman of enormous charm. Her house at 118 East Thirty-seventh Street was a perpetual drama. Her friends and family would flock to call on her, and she would reward them with the latest gossip, delivered in her own witty, biting manner My mother, who was to inherit her charmand her sharp witwas the object of her more notable remarks. On one occasion, Grandmother Tuckerman introduced her to President Cleveland by saying, "I'm sorry, but today May looks like a piece of tissue paper." Another day she explained, "May is rather plain, but she always has a pure heart and a clean handkerchief."
I often visited Grandmother Tuckerman at teatime, and I remember that she would always be found lying on the sofa, exhausted. Being exhausted at teatime has become a family trait.
Bayard Tuckerman was a gentle, adoring husband, whose occupation was first to minister to his wife's real or imaginary needsprincipally the latterand second to write books of narrow historical significance. He was a lecturer at Princeton until Grandmother made it quite clear that she couldn't bear living there. He deeply loved all his grandchildren, and he took a real interest in how we were doing at school, in our trips to the dentist, and even in our silliest observations of the world. We loved him back fiercely. I would sit on his knee for hours, listening to the Westminster chimes in his gold watch, trying to figure out, usually unsuccessfully, what time the bells were tolling. He died when I was only ten, and this is my first remembered sadness. Like most of the families in this area, they were very social. Their house was in Murray Hill, one of the most fashionable sections of New York prior to World War I.
SUSAN: Bayard and Annie Tuckerman lived with their four childrenSister's mother, May, and Elizabeth, Bayard, and Joanat 118 East Thirty-seventh Street in New York in the winter and at their house "Sunswick" in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the summer. Sunswick was a classic gray clapboard summer house with a large porch for lounging, tennis courts, and barns for the Tuckermans' horses and other animals.
Twenty-nine miles north of Boston, Ipswich is the site of Appleton Farms, a one-thousand-acre farm that has been owned and farmed for three centuries by Annie Tuckerman's mother's family, the Appletons. There were two Tuckerman-Appleton marriages, so the families were closely intertwined. Three estates were built along the north side of Waldingfield Road by grandchildren of Gen. James Appleton. "Waldingfield" was built by Randolph Morgan Appleton (Cousin Budd). Sunswick, next door to the west, was built by Sister's maternal grandparents, Bayard and Annie Tuckerman. "Applegate," to the east of Waldingfield, was owned by Ruth Appleton Tuckerman and her husband, Charles.
It was an insular world, where the cousins played togetherhunting with the Myopia Hunt Club, having lunch and supper dances, playing tennis, and roaming the countryside. Apparently, they did not venture far from the family circle that dotted Waldingfield Road. Bayard Tuckerman's niece, Cousin Annie Appleton Flichtner, vented her frustration in her teenage diary: "I've been fighting against it but there's no use, I'm depressed tonight. The reason, at present, is that we are not able to go to West Beach and Beverly and get to know those attractive people. It does seem hard and there's not one boy who isn't a cousin. The grown-ups are beginning to appreciate this and Aunt Violet says, 'Well, I've done my best to get them over here.'"
The only other decorator the family produced came from the Tuckerman side of the family. She was Dorothy Draper Tuckerman, my mother's first cousin. As Dorothy Draper, she wrote, "Decorating is Fun," did a newspaper column for young homemakers, and is reputed to be the culprit who turned the noun fun into an adjective by coining such phrases as "Fun City," "Fun Cottage," and "Fun Weekend." Having seen her trademark, giant red roses splashed over wallpaper and curtains, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the rumor were true.
TILLIE TUCKERMAN CUTLER (Sister's cousin): The Tuckermans lived in Ipswich in the summer and New York in the winter. At Sunswick, Bayard Tuckerman built a little shack because his wife talked too much. It was a separate place, a studio where he went to write. Annie was his wife, my Granny Tuckerman. She was wonderful. The Tuckermans didn't have much money, but they married very rich people, as arranged by Grandmother Tuckerman. She arranged them all. So Granny Tuckerman was arranging marriages while Grandpa was down in that studio writing books.
Aunt Joan was the youngest daughter. She wasn't as rich as the other ones. Her husband went broke the day before they got married.
When Aunt Joan went to a funeral and was put in the wrong place, Granny Tuckerman said, "There's always something that ruins a good funeral."
SUSAN: Aunt Joan was a favorite of Sister's and of the whole family. At the end of her life, she wrote a slim novel called What We Remember and What We Forget, chronicling Sister's mother's and her Ipswich and New York childhood.
JOAN TUCKERMAN DICK (Sister's aunt): Mother often spoke in hyperbole, taught to her by an Irish nurse. I remember such phrases as "It's enough to make the angels weep" and "You must feel like a giant refreshed." When she saw me smoking, she said, "I expect a bolt from heaven will fall on you." Her father, who was the minister of the Church of the Ascension in New York, brought down fire from heaven in the pulpit on Sundays. He was very fastidious, and he had the houseboy draw on his boots and put eau de cologne on his handkerchief. He did not allow his daughters to dance, and he always accompanied his wife to the shoe store. When Grandma told him their eldest daughter was having a baby, he said, "We don't speak of such things."
Sunswick smelled so good when we arrived in the springthe straw matting on the floors and the apple blossoms out the window. The wallpaper in my bedroom was bright yellow, with nymphs wading in blue pools, and the cheerful rhyme like a garland: "Oh, who would not live with the water fays. In the glad sunlight of the summer days!"
When my older sisters had their friends to stay, I had to move out of my room, yet I was very proud of them and considered them an asset. They gave me ascendancy over my cousins, as I was the only one with older sisters. My brother Bayard became a character very young. He lisped, and everyone laughed at whatever he said.
I would keep my light on long after I had been told to put it out, reading forbidden books like Portrait of a Lady. During my adolescence, I would faint occasionally. I remember looking through the slats of the banister while my anxious parents dosed me with ammonia. I have never had a drink so satisfying.
I handed out books of rules, rather like Benjamin Franklin's, where week by week we recorded improvements: a compliment we had received, or the fact that we had talked to a boy without a moment's pause in the conversation.
I had rules for God, too. Never let me fall overboard and be drowned from a steamer, a ferryboat, the fishing boat Carlotta, a rowboat, or a canoe. It would be so awful if there were any kind of boat that I had left out.
SUSAN: In the Tuckerman's Murray Hill neighborhood, as in Ipswich, they were surrounded by cousins, Aunt Joan remembered: "On Thirty-sixth Street, opposite where the Morgan Library is now, lived Uncle Fuller Appleton. His yard was so big that he kept a cow, and during the great blizzard of 1888, he provided milk for the children of the neighborhood. His cousin Gerard, when asked about his recent trip to Paris, said, 'It was just like Ipswichhot as hell and full of Appletons.'"
TILLIE TUCKERMAN CUTLER: My father, Sister's uncle Bayard, never worked; he just went riding. He was a jockey, and he hunted. He went to England and met the Prince of Wales, whom he later entertained in Ipswich in 1921. He started Suffolk Downs, the racetrack in Boston.
APPLE BARTLETT (Sister's daughter): Uncle Bayard was furious when Joe and I got married on the same day as the Maryland Hunt Cup. I remember that he swore and demanded, "How dare you?"
My paternal grandfather was Dr. Francis Kinnicutt, head of Presbyterian Hospital in New York and one of the foremost physicians in the country. He used to visit the wards in his morning coat every day, with the nurse preceding him. Occasionally, he would drag my brother and me along "to encourage the patients." We would dress in ermine coats and brown velvet leggings, and I doubt that we raised many spirits. But, in another way, we learned what sadness meant and how lucky we were.
When patients summoned him to their bedside, they often sent their private railway car to ease the trip. When he wasn't curing them, he was likely to be off hunting with them, One of his parents and closest friends was Edith Wharton, who managed to include him as the distinguished doctor in almost every book she wrote.
SUSAN: Sister's paternal grandfather, Francis Parker Kinnicutt, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1846. He went to Harvard and Columbia Medical School, then did graduate work in Vienna, Heidelberg, and London. Dr. Kinnicutt was one of the earliest doctors to treat the mind as well as the body. After treating Teddy Wharton [Edith's husband] for years, he was convinced his problem was a mental one, stemming from melancholy, insomnia, and nervousness, and possibly caused by Edith's increasing success. Maisie Kinnicutt Houghton, Sister's niece, did her dissertation on Edith Wharton at Radcliffe College, and she told us that one of Kinnicutt's best pieces of advice to Edith was for her to stop spending summers with her mother. His obituary in Boston's Medical and Surgical Journal described him as being a gentle man:
In dress he was very soigné, without being otherwise conspicuous. His good manners, in no way studied, were the outgrowth of his nature. Always considerate of others, even of their failings, he had a sweetness of character almost feminine in kind and degree. His gentleness, tact and sympathy kept him unspoiled of the world. These are qualities that we sometimes see in men who are thereby unfitting to cope with the world and its marketplaces. Not so with Kinnicutt, who combined harmoniously therewith an equal degree of manly strength and the power to control emotion and impulse by reason. To the poor and outcast he was the same courteous gentleman that he was to the more fortunate in life.
My paternal grandmother, Eleanora Kissel Kinnicutt, was a woman of distinct character and frozen expressionall bust, bustles, and severity. Her principal charity work was placing NO SPITTING signs in subways. I'm afraid that the Kinnicutts had appalling taste: polar bear rugs, moose heads, and antlers everywhere, golden oak furniture and dreary pastoral paintings. Their houses in New York and Morristown were large, dark, and musty. The party rooms were always closed.
SUSAN: Eleanora's family, the Kissels, were a distinguished German banking family, who settled in New York. She was accomplished in her own right, for her efforts on behalf of the New York Sanitation Department, the State Lunacy Commission, and the founding of Barnard College. Eleanora often wrote articles for periodicals and letters to government officials expressing her views. I came across a reply from Teddy Roosevelt that was sent to her from the White House in 1902. "Dear Mrs Kinnicutt, I wish I often received a letter half so interesting as your private one. All that you said, from national health to triumphant democracy in England, greatly interested me...."
Dr. Kinnicutt and his wife, Eleanora, had two childrenSister's father, Gustav Hermann (called Hermann), and Francis. The Kinnicutt houses that Sister said were filled with polar bear rugs and dreary pastoral paintings were in Morristown, New Jersey; Dark Harbor; Lenox, Massachusetts; and New York.
My father was Gustav Hermann Kinnicutt. He went to Harvard and, several years after graduating, formed with his uncle Gustav Kissel the brokerage firm of Kissel-Kinnicutt, the forerunner of Kidder, Peabody & Co. My father ran the firm for many years, surviving the Depression and recessions, and they managed to survive two crashes. He worked hard and he lived well until he died of a heart attack on Pearl Harbor day.
He joined eminent dining clubs here and abroad. He was an avid sportsmanpolo, tennis, coaching, golfand a crack shot. He had a shooting lodge in Havre de Grace, Maryland, where, during duck season, he would invite his men friends. They included some of the best-known people in the financial world
One of my earliest memories of my father is sitting beside him in the two-wheel Hempstead cart that drove him to the train in Morristown. If I met him at the train upon his return, the coachman and horse would have to wait patiently while he went to the candy store and bought me a Tootsie Roll. If I was sick, he would always bring me a bouquet of flowers. On Valentine's Day, I could count on receiving cards, candy, and flowers from a mysterious admirer. He encouraged Mother to buy me beautiful clothes, and he often went shopping with us. One of the great joys of being his daughter was that he treated me as a person, as an adult.
My father had a dimension beyond the business, sporting, and social life that was common to most successful men of that time. Father was a learned man, and a well-traveled one. He became a collector and connoisseur of English and American antiques. I'm sure that much of my knowledge originates with him. We used to bicycle all over the New Jersey countryside, exploring out-of-the-way antique shops. And whenever we tinkled the bell on an antique shop's door, Daddy would invariably buy me a Staffordshire figure. Thus collections are born.
My father had good taste in a scholarly sense. A thorough knowledge and love of good furniture is essential to decorating. I am sure that it helps to be the only daughter of a known authority on antiques.
My mother, May Appleton Tuckerman, had instinctive good taste. My father would find a magnificent eighteenth-century desk. An important one. My mother would instinctively know that the charcoal sketch of my brother should go above it and that the crystal candle stick should go on it, that this figurine and that precious Chinese bowl would nicely balance the framed family photographs that brought the desk to life. She knew exactly how that desk should look in a morning room, and precisely how it should look in a study. Taste is instinctive, and I think that possibly it is inherited. If it is, mine came from Mother.
A decorator's taste, a decorator's eye, the personality that any decorator expresses in his or her work comes from deep within, some of it inherited, some of it experienced, some of it acquired I have no doubt that much of what I do today as a decorator comes, in some way, from my parents.
Mother was gentle but strong-willed. She never raised her voice to make her point. More often than not, she would say nothing at all. She spoke slowly, and very softly, pausing between sentences.
She had a way of looking at a spoon, and the maid would instantly whisk it away and get out the silver polish. She would turn her gaze to a corner of the garden, and Angelo would know exactly which rose to prune. When she thought a table needed dusting, she would run her finger idly along the edge. No more needed to be said The servants adored her, and there was no question who was in charge.
Mother, who was famous for many of the things she said, once denied any interest in society. "It just happens," she explained, "that I only like a certain type of person, and they all just happen to be socially important."
Her innate sense of a well-ordered, properly regulated life was documented at a very early age. She was passing a neighbor's house in Murray Hill and she noticed black crepe on the door. She explained to her sister, Aunt Elizabeth, with absolute childlike certainty, that the death had occurred because "they haven't been properly regulated in going to the bathroom."
Everything in its place was almost an obsession with Mother. When she came home from the hospital just before she died, she had the hospital orderlies carry her on a stretcher from room to room, and wherever she went, she would find something an inch out of place and put it back. That is perfection.
My mother strived for perfection in her clothes as well as in her housekeeping. She was by no means a great beauty, but she always made a striking appearance wherever she went because she was beautifully dressed.
"Just have a basic black dress" was her motto. Though perfection was her own personal goal, she had a loving heart and was enormously understanding of others. If the trouble was personal, she would show her concern in a helpful, personal way. If the trouble was financial, out of the blue she would be there.
I did not inherit her obsession with neatness, but, to this day, one of the things I dread most is walking into a house that has not been properly cared for. I sense a lack of love in an unkempt house. It has nothing to do with money or maids. Certainly if you have a staff, that helps, but what it really takes to care for your house is love. I admire perfection and people who strive for it.
SUSAN: Sister's parents, May Appleton Tuckerman and Hermann Kinnicutt, were married on April 18, 1907. One newspaper account began: "One of the largest weddings of the season took place yesterday afternoon at 3:30 when G. Hermann Kinnicutt and Miss May Appleton Tuckerman were married in the Church of the Incarnation at Madison Avenue and Thirty-fifth Street. The bride wore a gown of chiffon and lace with a satin coat train and a long tulle veil caught with orange blossoms. She carried a shower bouquet of Lillies of the Valley and wore a diamond and pearl clasp at her throat."
Town Topics reported, "About five hundred persons crowded the Church of the Incarnation on Thursday afternoon.... The ceremony was performed by the Reverend Roland Cotton Smith of Washington, an uncle of the bride, and the guests included the Morgans, the Cuttings, the Harrimans, the Havermeyers, the Iselins and the Burdens."
D. B. GILBERT: (Sister's daughter): I remember Grandma ... her bathroom ... so beautiful ... glass doors that opened up and all of these lovely negligees. Well, they didn't call them that then. They had the most beautiful scent. The most fragrant sachet. You feel so luxurious to smell like that.
I remember Grandma smoking cigarettes. Wonderful holders. Also, her cigarettes were in lovely silver cups everywhere around the house.
SYBIL KINNICUTT BALDWIN (Sister's niece): I associate Grandma Kinnicutt with beige cashmere sweaters and long, beautifully manicured fingers with pink nail polish. In my memory, she wasn't a bit pretty, but she was so elegant, so glamorous. She exuded glamour. I also associate Grandma Kinnicutt with fur coats and with the Ritz in Boston. Something about the smell in the elevator there reminds me of her perfume. It was an aroma that she had about her, rich and comfortable.
IRENE KINNICUTT (Sister's sister-in-law): Mr. Kinnicutt had lots of interests. Like everybody, he lost lots of money in the crash, but he made it all back. He was intelligent and a very good investment banker. He collected all of the furniture from France; all the good things we all have were from Mr. Kinnicutt. Mrs. Kinnicutt was charming; she got along with people very well. She had good taste. There were always flowers and the best food and a wonderful household. At Mayfields, there were many to helpa butler, gardeners, cooks, maidsthe whole works. Everything was perfect.
Mr. Kinnicutt was not too social. He had an orchid garden where he spent a lot of time alone. He was up in the morning at five, you know, working on it. I don't know if he ever got it or not. He rode and hunted. Mrs. Kinnicutt was not what you'd call sportive, but everybody loved her. She had a very good sense of humor. Sister inherited lots of things from her father, especially the taste and buying of good things. They had an apartment in Paris at 25 quai d'Orsay.
MAISIE KINNICUTT HOUGHTON (Sister's niece): My grandfather was a very disciplined and hardworking man. Grandma Kinnicutt was always beautifully dressed and had that famous dry way of speaking; the way they all spoke, the way Aunt Sister spoke. I remember sitting with her on the porch at the "little inn" in Maine, and she seemed very old to me, although she was only in her early sixties. I remember her saying to me to go upstairs. "I want you to bring down a little present wrapped in tissue paper," she told me. I opened it, and it was a little silver knife and fork that was marked MK. As you know, we had the same initials. My father adored her, and they had the same sense of humor, as he was the oldest son and good-looking and fun.
I think the Kinnicutts were interested in a life just beyond the square box. They could laugh at themselves; they had a sense of humor. They liked to have nice things and they liked interesting people. They cared about the family, which were the values that Sister had. Imagination was what she valuedin herself and in other people.
The children's looks came from the Kinnicutt family. Grandmother Kinnicutt was not a great beauty, but she had great style. The best-looking one was Grandpa Kinnicutt; he had that incredibly strong face.
TILLIE TUCKERMAN CUTLER: We used to go to Far Hills and stay with Aunt May. She was funny and she was wonderful. One time, she came to Boston. She got in a taxi and she wanted to go to this particular address. The driver asked, "Where's that?" She said, "I know, but I'm not going to tell you." She said things like that all of the time.
MARY HOMANS (family friend): I visited Sister's parents in Far Hills when I was young. I was staying with them while I went to a corning-out party. It was her father, everyone said, who had all the taste. Mrs. Kinnicutt was something. She talked very slowly. Once, Mr. Kinnicutt allegedly had the hiccups, and, as you know, there are so many theories about how to get rid of the hiccups. One theory is to scare a person. Apparently, Mrs. Kinnicutt got behind the couch and stood up slowly and said, "Boo, Hermann. Boo."
MRS. ETHAN HITCHCOCK (family friend): Mrs. Kinnicutt was killingly funny. She was unbelievable. She had this slow, dry sense of humor and never cracked a smile. Her husband, Hermann, was kind of a stuffed shirt. He had no sense of humor, but he was very, very attractive.
NED SUNDERLAND (Sister's cousin): May Kinnicutt was delightful. She had a tremendous sense of style. She was the smart one. People who didn't like her said she was a snob and that all she cared about was to have her children hang around rich, smart people. At that time, you could make that accusation against Frankie and Gory when they were young. But anyway, that was years ago.
Her character really came out when her best friend, Gertrude Whitney's husband, Richard, went to jail and she invited Gertrude to come and live in the farmhouse on the Kinnicutt place. May Kinnicutt stuck by Gertrude, and that does say something about her. She was wonderful that way. Richard Whitney went to jail in 1938 for embezzlement. This was a huge scandal because Richard Whitney was the brother of George Whitney, J. P. Morgan's partner. Richard Whitney had been Morgan's broker. If Mrs. Kinnicutt was invited to tea, she wouldn't go unless Mrs. Whitney was invited, too. Alexander Aldrich is writing a book about this, in which he tells how one morning he was going in to say good morning to his father before school and the butler said, "You are not to go in." By this time, he had opened the door, and there was Richard Whitney asking Winthrop Aldrich to persuade Winthrop's brother-in-law, John D. Rockerfeller, to lend Richard Whitney a million dollars. Then Richard Whitney ended up going to Sing Sing, and the warden said, "Now, Mr. Whitney, I have a few investments. Maybe you could advise me." He was given a phone in the prison library, and he made the warden a millionaire.
SUSAN: Sister saved every letter ever written to her, as well as those of her parents and grandparents. They are on that luxurious heavy writing paper with the names of grand European hotels embossed at the top or the names of friends' houses, such as Morelands or The Knoll, printed simply in block letters. Many are from ocean liners on which they were traveling, with enclosed menus detailing ten-course dinners and the evening's entertainment. The absence of street addresses and zip codes contrasts sharply with the exotic stamps from cities such as Peking and Cairo, which cover the envelopes.
In these letters, Sister's parents' devotion to each other is chronicled in minute detail. Despite their formal appearances, the letters from Hermann to May are informal and loving. He addressed his letters to May, "My dearest little Maybird," and, in her return letters to Hermann, May signed, "Your little girl." It appears that they wrote every day that they were apart, and the letters are filled with gossip, menus, details of their various houses, and news from the different European cities where they were visiting, or little bits about the children's progress at home. The accounts of the running of the house are exhaustive. Letters, with enclosed lists, three typed pages long, detail the inventory of silver, which was being transferred from one house to another.
The breadth of my great-grandparents' world geographically, and the scale of luxury they enjoyed, is sweetened by their simple devotion to each other and their children.
Mother had her own special way of running a household, and it worked. On occasions when she wanted to use leftovers for dinner, she would ask the cook what he had in the kitchen, and he would invariably answer, "Nothing."
She would say, "Then make something very, very good out of it." And he would.
When Daddy tried to cut down on household expenses, he asked her for a strict accounting of costs. After a month, he asked her where she had economized
"Didn't you notice?" she asked. "No chocolate peppermints in the front hall."
PETER GATES (family friend): That was a magic generation, and my parents were part of it. It struck me as being very small at the time. There were maybe 150 people worth knowing. There may have been twenty in Philadelphia, twenty in North Shore, Long Island, fifty in New York, twenty in Boston, ten in Greenwich, and maybe an occasional fortunate one in Grosse Point. Very snobbish, and very inbred in the sense that they all knew one another at school or college.
Our New York neighborhood for the first six years of my life was Murray Hill. an area that could be roughly defined, socially, if not geographically, as between Thirty-fourth and Thirty-eighth streets, and between Lexington and Madison avenues. In those days, it was considered "uptown." The houses were mostly large comfortable brownstones, but with the exception of J. P. Morgan's, there were few mansions to rival those on Fifth Avenue. When I roller-skated around the block, I knew the families that lived in each house. And I didn't have to venture more than two blocks in any direction to find a treat at one of my grandparents' houses. If not the most fashionable neighborhood, it certainly was the friendliest. It was social in a very special way. Everyone knew everyone else, and on more than a nodding basis. The parties were grand, top hats were still common, and footmen helped ladies down from their carriages.
The memory that emerges most strongly from my childhood is the strict, reassuring pattern of family life. It worked like clockwork. We would leave Dark Harbor for Morristown the day after Labor Day. No questions. We would leave Morristown for the house in New York City the Monday after Thanksgiving. No questions. We would leave New York to return to New Jersey on the Thursday before Good Friday. No questions. We would leave the country to board the Bar Harbor Express for Maine on July 2. No questions. We moved a lot and traveled a lot, but there was a clear, reassuring pattern to our lives. We children never had to wonder what would happen next, and this gave us a feeling of security and confidence. That is something that stays with you for your whole life.
There was a definite continuity to my life. Year after year, nothing changed, and yet the excitement was intense. It was like another Christmas every time we moved. Each fall, on the way back from Dark Harbor, I couldn't wait to see the red apples on our favorite tree, to see the cherries bursting with ripeness, ready to be devoured. I knew that the Seckel pears would still be green, but we could pinch them and tell if they'd be ripe in one week or two. There would be white peaches in baskets, ready to be placed in big Lowestoft bowls in the front hall, and the fresh smell would follow us from room to room. The greenhouse would be bursting with chrysanthemums almost ready for the pots on the winding staircase. Angelo, our devoted and always-present gardener, would have his rake ready to catch each falling leaf. The elms and maples around the house would be starting to turn and soon tinges of yellow, gold, rust, and flaming reds would be giving me wonderful lessons in color.
Upon returning each fall, our only fear was that school would soon be starting. But at least that, too, was a certainty. Every morning, Mademoiselle would sponge the "Boston waterproof" around the soles of our shoes so they'd be black and shiny when we went off to school. Mealtimes were sacred, and if you weren't on time, you didn't eat. No one ever picked up a fork until the first bite was between Mother's lips. We never reached across the table. Manners, of course, were always correct. When an adult entered the room, we stood up. When someone was introduced, the boys bowed and I curtsied. The five most important expressions in our vocabulary were: "Sir," "Madame," "Please," "Thank you," and "Excuse me." Elbows were never on the table. We would start each day with our hair combed, our teeth brushed, our faces scrubbed shiny, and that's how we'd be when we climbed into our beds at night. Bedtime was always on the dot, with a half-hour privilege for the eldest. These things were inviolable. Ours was an orderly, organized household in every way, and family tradition was instilled from the beginning.
Self-discipline is one of the continuing threads that run through the generations of my family. It is what made my grandfather Kinnicutt a superior doctor, and what enabled my grandfather Tuckerman to be a serious historian. It was what made it possible for my father to steer his brokerage firm through two crashes, and to pay the firm's debts with his own money. It carried my mother and father through many heartaches, including the sudden death of my younger brother at a baseball game at St. Mark's School.
Although I'm sure that many of my strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies can be traced to Cotton Mather and beyond, the real influences on my life came from the family that surrounded me on Murray Hill.
SUSAN: Hermann and May Kinnicutt had four children: Francis Parker ("Frankie"), Dorothy May ("Sister"), Gustav Hermann ("Gory"), and Bayard ("Bydie"). The children all had striking looksdark hair, piercing eyes, and fantastically seductive smiles.
IRENE KINNICUTT: They had quite a childhood. They traveled to Europe, always with a chauffeur and their nurse, Mademoiselle. They had the most beautiful cara Mercedes Daimlerand once they all went on a family outing with Mademoiselle and the car tipped over with all of them in it.
I do not think any four children fought as much as we did. It never endedmorning until night. I was closest to my middle brother, Gory, who would occasionally give me a small breakof course I would have to do a lot for him in return. Such as stealing from the pantry for him and his horrid little friends. Thus to make him a hero.
APPLE: Mummy's brothers Frankie and Gory were completely different in character. Frankie was a real intellectual and very knowledgeable in the field of modern art. He was more of a man's man. Gory was far more easygoing and accessible, the leader of Dark Harbor's Tarratine Club for many years.
IRENE KINNICUTT: Gory, Bayard, and Frankie all went to St. Mark's. Bayard died there, and there is a fountain in his memory on the campus. When Bayard died, it was terrible. Mr. Kinnicutt wrote a beautiful letter saying that Bayard didn't use his sword in life. They were crushed. He was fourteen.
JOHNNY PYNE (family friend): I was walking my bike when I was about thirteen. I was going to the lake, when Kenny Schley and Bayard came by. Bayard had that slow way of talking. We used to go to the movies together in Bernardsville. Our driver, whose name was Smart, would take us there. Bayard died when he was playing ball at St. Mark's. I still miss him, and I think of him every now and then.
My youngest brother, Bayard, was already a real character by the time he was seven years old. Marvelous-looking, a great sportsman, and a joy to all. When he died playing baseball at St. Mark's, it was a loss to young and old. I will never forget as the school lined up to say farewell to him. The voices of those two hundred boys shouting, "Let's give a long cheer for Kinnicutt," and then the St. Mark's hymn was sung. Not a dry eye could be seen, and as the door of our car was closed, I could see each boy wander off alone in sadness.
SUSAN: I think that one of the reasons Sister was so determined to be strong was that many of the men in her life died young, beginning with Bydie and ending with her own son, Harry. All three of her brothers and her son died prematurely of heart attacks.
IRENE KINNICUTT: Sister, Gory, and Frankie all had very good judgment of people. Their comments were sometimes strong, but always honest. They were not rude, but they didn't beat about the bush. People liked the way that they were straightforward. They got their looks from their father. Sister was very handsome-looking.
Frankie always came over to our house because we had the house on the water where he had lived as a boy. We got it when Mr. and Mrs. Kinnicutt died, as Sister and Frankie already had houses. Frankie came over in the evening and told me about his life. He was more sophisticated, you know. He loved modern art.
MAISIE KINNICUTT HOUGHTON: My father, Frankie, was very proud of Sister. I remember she came over with Uncle Harry and said she had gotten this big offer to go to South Africa and to do this big job. I remember hearing the buzz of grown-ups talking, and I remember Daddy saying, "Go. It's a fantastic opportunity." Sister said she didn't know if she could do it. She told me years later that once he came over to the house and he was walking around with a canethis was at the end of his life. He began gesturing in the little pink-and-white living room and saying, "What's this? What's that? Everything here is goddamn junk exceptwho did this?" And gesturing to this little picture, Sister said, "I did it." It was a collage that she had done, and later she gave it to me. When we moved into the new house on the water, she said, "I am going to give you a present." When I came home, there was this picture on the front step, just there. It wasn't wrapped or anything. I lifted it up and turned it over and, on the back of it, it said, "It has a story."
And that was the story. It had meant something to her that he had admired it. She admired his eye. He was very interested in modern art. In the forties, the whole idea of modern art was something very new and exciting. And, of course, it wasn't her taste, but she recognized that he had an eye in a whole other field.
MICHAEL KINNICUTT (Sister's nephew): When I say my name, often the first thing I hear is, "Oh, any relation to Frankie?" His reputation seemed to have been widespread, but basically my understanding is that he really did very little as far as earning a living, although he was very creative. He had artistic instincts and he recognized Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock before they were popular.
He always had some kind of prop. I remember when he had a cane. He was very theatrical. He had this beautiful sailboatthe Windsonga wooden boat that sparkled. He was independent and liked to go out on the boat on his own. He liked to have a good time.
FRANCIE TRAIN (family friend): Frankie told me a wonderful thing once. He said, "Francie, whenever you go to a party, if you see a really unattractive person sitting all alone, whom everyone's ignoring, go up and talk to them, because nine times out of ten, they'll be the most interesting person there."
JOSEPH BARTLETT (Apple's former husband): The secret of Frankie's success with people is clear to me, on reflection. A close friend of mine died recently, and his son said something at the funeral that rang true both vis-à-vis Peter and, as I think of it, Frankie. They treated everyone alike, from the lowest to the highest. This is a precious commodity, an attribute found, in my experience, in men and women entirely secure in themselves. Frankie was a natural "aristocrat" and, like all real aristocrats, sure of himself, sure of who he was and what he wanted to do in life. Accordingly, lacking the insecurities and anxieties that plague most of us, he was able to be natural, open, and friendly, almost childlike, with everybody from the Duke of Devonshire to the proverbial cop on the beat. This is a rare achievement, I have found. It only comes naturally, and too few of us have it.
Frankie was one of the two or three most attractive men I have ever met. His conversation was interesting, his interests eclectic and informed, and, most important, one felt immediately and entirely comfortable in his presence.
Gory, Frankie's brother, was both like and quite unlike Frankie in certain very important ways. He was like him in that he was a member of the Porcellian Club, a man without affectations who was not uncomfortable in anyone's company. He had the same God-given sense of humor and ability to entertain at the drop of a hat. His wife, Irene, was and is a great beauty.
One part of the Kinnicutt charm with both Frankie and Gory was that both were living in the past, in a New York closer to Edith Wharton than to Thomas Wolfe.
With both men, of course, friendship was key ... within an extended family (which included me) and with people who (as Jack Kennedy once put it) were around when the "sap was first rising."
When I think of the two of them, I think of that short and sweet toast the economically express complex emotions: "to absent friends."
What People are Saying About This
(George Plimpton, best-selling author of Truman Capote)
Meet the Author
Apple Bartlett is an artist and shop owner living in Boston, MA and Islesboro, ME. Susan Bartlett Crater is an artist living outside of New York City.
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