Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, New York Society Leader

By Charles Stokes Wayne

Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish
Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, as the acknowledged leader of the spectacular element of New York society, occupies a uniquely conspicuous position. The little realm over which she rules is but a small part of the great social world; but it is set upon a hill. She and her subjects, engaged apparently in a continuous performance, are ever in the public eye. Their comings and goings, their routes and fetes, their loves and their aversions, their marriages and their divorces, the clothes they wear, the wines they drink, the pranks they play, the jests they utter, all are chronicled in the newspapers. The conservative old Knickerbocker and some of the new, but staid people, sneer at Mrs. Fish's followers, who, in return, only laugh and set about some new device of entertainment to excite the envy, even if contemptuous, of  their detractors.

By force of her aggressive independence rather than by tact has Mrs. Fish attained to the sovereignty that is hers. Family and money have been efficacious aids in the process of elevation, but there are women of more distinguished ancestry and possessing greater income—women, too, of far superior diplomatic equipment – who have struggled in vain for the eminence that Mrs. Fish has reached without seeming effort; reached, in fact, while flying in the face of all precedent, in that she truckled to none, spoke her mind freely on all occasions, put no check on her incisive wit, was a law unto herself, dinner and made enemies faster than she made friends.

Tall, dark and florid, with a figure calculated to display to advantage the sumptuous adornment with which she provides it, Mrs. is distinguee rather than beautiful. Mrs. Fish's jewels are among the handsomest in New York. She does not affect a tiara, but wears in her hair a magnificent diamond spray. About her neck circles a collar of pearls three inches deep. Suspended from it in front, by a thread of diamonds four inches long, is a diamond cluster that, viewed across the horseshoe at the Metropol­itan Opera House, looks like an enormous single stone. Extending diagonally down her corsage she wears a row of buttons of diamonds set around sapphires, each sapphire as large as one's finger nail. A festoon of diamonds from the left shoulder to the front of the corsage completes the display.

The Crossways, the Newport House of Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish
Mrs. Fish, before marriage, was Miss Mary Anthon, a daughter of the late Charles Anthon, a well-known New York lawyer, who, as so many good lawyers do, "worked hard, lived high and died poor." Though her family was never particularly blessed with this world's goods, it always held an excellent position, and the name is one of the oldest in New York. Mrs. Fish's mother was a Miss Meert. Her eldest sister, Miss Theresa Anthon, married the late William Stanhope Callender. Mrs. Fish's marriage took place in the late seventies. Her hus­band, the third son of the late Hamilton Fish, is president of the Illinois Central Railroad Company, and was recently spoken of as likely to have offered to him one of the foreign embassies. He started life with a fair income, and his fortune has been much increased by his own efforts. He is a large man, not stout and not thin, a trifle over six feet in height, and weighs probably one hundred and ninety pounds. Yet with this fine physique he is not what may be called handsome. Nevertheless, he could never be mistaken for other than a gentle­man. His manners are perfect. Mr. Fish apparently cares very little for society. To quote his friends, he is "strictly business."

Mrs. Fish has three children, one girl and two boys. Her daughter, Marion, is very sweet and lovable. She and her mother are rarely seen together. And Miss Marion's friends and her mother's are quite a differ­ent lot of people, as was discovered by a family acquaintance not long ago who had been used to Mrs. Fish's set and dropped in at an affair that was being given for the young lady. He found, to his amazement, that he did not know a single person. The elder son of Mrs. Fish is at Yale; the younger at St. Paul's School.

Within the past year there has been no little gossip as to the race between Mrs. Fish's increasing luxuriousness of taste and Mr. Fish's increasing income. There cer­tainly was some talk last summer to the effect that the Newport place, The Cross­ways, was in the market, and would be dis­posed of as soon as a purchaser willing to pay the price could be found. This large white wooden villa of Colonial architecture, which rears the lofty columns of its portico above Newport's matchless Ocean Drive, has been the scene of much festivity since it was opened four years ago. But the New­port season at best is not of great length, and Mrs. Fish, proverbially of a restless dis­position, dislikes to stop long in one place. She has a country house, too, at Garrisons. Her town house, at No. 25 East Seventy-eighth Street, has witnessed some of the most original entertainments ever given in a New York mansion. Last winter Mrs. Fish made her home at Garrisons her headquarters, and though she went about a great deal, she entertained very little, save in the way of house parties.

With the private car of the president of the Illinois Central Railroad Company always at her command, it is scarcely surprising that Mrs. Fish should have made excursions into all the far-off corners of the American continent. For this reason, she is perhaps more widely known as a representative New York society leader than is either Mrs. Astor or Mrs. Mills—each of whom reign over a coterie more numerous, perhaps, than that of Mrs. Fish, though by no means so effulgent—and everywhere that Mrs. Fish has been, stories are told of her candor.

It was during the Carnival of 1888, I think, that she first visited New Orleans and brought down upon herself the wrath of the inhabitants by declaring, after a visit to Moreau's and other of the city's famed res­taurants, that there was not a decent eating place in the town, which, she asserted (it rained most of the time she was there) was like nothing so much as a great big "slop pail." She had been taken by some women to the Louisiana Club, where she expected to find the flower of New Orleans manhood, and was sore at heart because the house was practically destitute of the masculine sex, every man and boy parading that day in the Carnival procession.

Four or five winters ago Mrs. Fish spent a few weeks in Cuba. According to the health regulations of the United States, every person coming from Cuba to this country must bring a certificate of vaccination. In Havana, these certificates were furnished then by Dr. William F. Brunner, the United States Marine Hospital Surgeon at that port. Now, one of Dr. Brunner's characteristics is his utter disregard of social standing in the performance of his official duties.

Mrs. Fish had evidently not heard of Dr. Brunner's idiosyncrasies, when one day, hav­ing made up her mind to return to this country, she drove up to the office of the United States official to get the necessary certificate of vaccination. She was accom­panied by a young Englishman, who went up­stairs and invited the doctor to come down and see Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish. Much to the young man's surprise, he was told that if Mrs. Fish wished to interview Dr. Brunner she would have to walk up to his office. Mrs. Fish could not believe that an ordinary United States official would dare send such a message to one of New York society's recognized queens. Back went the young Englishman to the doctor, who again told him that if Mrs. Fish wished to see him she would have to come up and wait her turn. Dr. Brunner, however, did make one con­cession. When Mrs. Fish's escort, referring to the twenty-five or thirty Cubans and others of all colors and conditions who were being examined one by one, exclaimed, "What! With all these people there?" he said Mrs. Fish might wait her turn in a private room.

So Mrs. Fish did walk upstairs, was shown into a private room, seated herself and waited her turn. It was not long before Dr. Brunner had finished examining the common herd, and Mrs. Fish entered his office. Her eyes flashed with rage, and she spoke out sharply to the doctor:

"I presume you have heard that I was vaccinated on the leg, and—"

"Yes, madam," was the courteous reply, "I have heard some such report."

"And I presume you want to see it. Well, there it is," and suiting the action to the word, Mrs. Fish revealed the scar.

The doctor granted the certificate, and Mrs. Fish stalked out of the room.

Mrs. Fish in the Four-in-hand Parade
By her general disregard of the social amenities, Mrs. Fish has managed to achieve for herself a reputation for heartlessness. Probably the most characteristic example of this peculiarity has come to be known as "The Story of Two Crossways." Mrs. Fish had arranged in June, 1898, to open her Newport villa on a certain night with a housewarming. The fact that her husband's nephew, young Hamilton Fish, had been killed by Spanish guerillas in a Cuban jungle a short time before the date set, did not cause her to change her plans. By a curious coincidence, young Fish's body had been buried at the intersection of two narrow trails—the Crossways of Las Guasimas. Also, it chanced that Mr. Nicholas Fish, the father of the dead soldier, chose the night of the housewarming at Newport to exhume the remains of his son in Cuba. Mrs. Fish's detractors did not fail to make all the capi­tal they could out of this contrast.

Whatever difference of opinion may exist on this score, there is no question concern-ing Mrs. Fish's cleverness. Her friends and her foes agree that she is fertile in concep­tion and adroit in execution. She is quick-witted and far-sighted, and though her tongue may be sharp sometimes to cruelty, her observations invariably possess a keen­ness and a point that command attention. Time and again Mrs. Fish has enacted the role of the society Moses and has led the children of fashion out of the dull monotony of convention into the land of the bizarre. Novelty is Mrs. Fish's watchword. It was she that first ventured to give a barn dance at Newport at which the guests appeared in the costumes of French peasants of a cen­tury or two ago, and indulged in such bucolic sports as hunting eggs in the hay lofts and milking the cows in the stalls. It was Mrs. Fish, too, that introduced the "reversible" dance, where all clothes were worn hind side before and the back of each head was covered with a mask. At one of her dances she introduced live favors for one figure of the cotillion. It is said that many of the little beasts escaped from their cages and were forgotten or purposely left behind by the guests. The result was that for two days following the dance they poked them­selves under Mrs. Fish's feet or peered at her from behind curtains.

Mrs. Fish likes vaudeville, and has for years been a patron of the music halls. It is not surprising, therefore, that on more than one occasion she has endeavored to divert society with similar performances within her own doors. That these affairs have not always been so amusing as some critics desired is due to the fact that there is a limit to Mrs. Fish's energies. In such enterprises it is necessary to delegate certain portions of the labor to assistants, and to the incapacity of these helpers I must attribute whatever there was of failure. Had Mrs. Fish invented the jokes for her vaudeville entertainment of two years ago, which was the most notable of the series, and had Mrs. Fish spoken them, I have little doubt that society would still be repeating them and laughing over them. As it was, Mrs. Fish devoted her talents to transforming her ball room into a perfect reproduction of a second-rate music hall. The thoroughly professional appearance of everything, from scenery to ushers, gave evidence of that praiseworthy attention to detail which in such matters at least is characteristic of the hostess.

In devising novelties for the amusement of her subjects, Mrs. Fish in times past, before the young man married, has had the counsel and assistance of that eminent Baltimorean, Mr. Harry Simms Lehr, whose facility in the art, of self-advertising amounts almost to genius.

At the very outset there was a bond of sympathy between Mrs. Fish and her pro­tégé. Mr. Lehr was always doing unheard-of things and Mrs. Fish wanted to do them. Mr. Lehr once upon a time, returning home from a ball in Baltimore with two young women, one of whom was Miss Lulu Morris, who afterwards became Mrs. Fred Gebhard, and who is now Mrs. Henry Clews, Jr., set all the town agog by wading with his fair charges through the basin of a fountain. Mrs. Fish, not to be outdone, once upon a time waded some distance into the surf at Newport clad in all the bravery of a ball gown and kid slippers. It was this resource­ful spirit in each that made them boon com­panions and each valuable to the other. Mr. Lehr gave Mrs. Fish ideas when her own usually well-filled store ran low, and Mrs. Fish, by smiling her gratitude upon Mr. Lehr, advanced the society rating of that ambitious youth several points at every smile.

At Newport, three summers ago, Mr. Lehr was especially prominent, and more than one quarrel between Mrs. Fish and her friend, Mrs. Oelrichs, was the result of his sayings and doings. He was accused by Mrs. Oelrichs, for example, of telling Mrs. Fish that some of her subjects had arranged a surprise party for her, and Mrs. Oelrichs, who had been head and front of the move­ment; was righteously indignant that the secret should have leaked out through one whom she had so implicitly trusted. Mrs. Fish naturally defended the young man, and a breach between the two women was the result. But no breach between Mrs. Fish and Mrs. Oelrichs could possibly be long continued. They have much in common, and each appreciates the other.

A more recent aspirant for social recogni­tion whom Mrs. Fish took up and advanced until her position in the Fish-Oelrichs-Belmont set at least is thoroughly secure, is Mrs. George J. Gould. When three years ago Mrs. Gould entertained Mrs. Fish in her box at the opera it was a red-letter night in the Gould calendar, and Mrs. Gould, I remember, in honor of the occasion wore a red velvet gown trimmed with priceless lace. Then Mrs. Gould had Mrs. Fish down to the Gould place at Lakewood, and from that time Mrs. Gould's progress has been swift and easy.

Not unnaturally, Mrs. Fish's indifference to social traditions, while it has surrounded her with a few staunch friends among the newly-arrived, has tended to place an ever-widening gulf between her set and that more exclusive coterie known as the Ogden Mills faction. Indeed, the situation is more com­plex than the average outsider conceives, or cares, perhaps.

In the Automobile Parade at Newport
Mrs. "Ollie" Belmont is, of course, a powerful factor on the Fish side, and Mrs. Gerry and Mrs. Mills, on this account, have found themselves in a very awkward posi­tion, especially Mrs. Gerry. She has always refused to accept Mrs. "Ollie" Belmont, and at the famous series of cotillions or supper dances, given five seasons ago in New York, Mrs. "Ollie" Belmont was not asked to those held at the residences of Mrs. Ogden Mills, Mrs. Gerry and Mrs. Henry Sloane. In fact, I think she was also left out by the Starr Millers and the Frank Pendletons. Matters, however, have changed a bit since then. There have been more interesting complications, but neither Mrs. Gerry nor Mrs. Mills has relented.

Today Mrs. Astor is out of it. She is willing to go almost anywhere for a good time, and she is not so careful as of old whom she asks for dinner. Mrs. Mills does not regard Mrs. Fish as a social rival or even a social equal, and Mrs. Fish sneers at Mrs. Mills. When Mrs. Fish took up the Hermann Oelriches, Maitland Kersey and "Dick" Peters, who had been devoted cavaliers of the Mills court, went over to the Fish-Oelrichs set, both men having a dim idea of winning the hand of Virginia Fair. Mrs. Mills has never forgotten this episode, and neither Mrs. Fish nor Mrs. Oelrichs stands high in her favor.

Mrs. Mills has two devoted friends in Miss Anna Sands and Mrs. C. Albert Stevens. Another of her friends is Mrs. Perry Bel­mont, who, as Mrs. Henry Sloane, was al­ways devoted, although several little tiffs were reported at various times. Mrs. Mills, it must be said to her credit, is not a woman to go back on her intimates, and she has stood by Mrs. Perry Belmont when so­ciety swerved a bit, as society will some­times do when driven to the wall by interest or sudden subservience to the opinions, how­ever unjustly formed, of the other half who are not with the elect. Both Mrs. Mills and Mrs. Perry Belmont (then Mrs. Sloane) es­poused the cause of the young Cornelius Van­derbilts. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt is now an ally of Mrs. "Ollie" Belmont, and at the same time belongs to the Gerry-Goelet fac­tion; so, altogether, it is a tangled comedy.

But the interesting fact remains that New York society people as a class—there are exceptions, of course--think only of the pleasure of the day or the provider of the hour. They will espouse any cause, and hurrah with anyone who will give them food, drink and amusement.

From Ainslee’s Magazine – June 1902.


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