Friday, December 20, 2013

Mamie Fish

In this winter of our "global warming," yet another horrible storm managed to torpedo last Monday's field trip to Grey Towers, the Richard Morris Hunt designed home of America's uber-forester, Gifford Pinchot. I finally got there, but not in time to ponder, Photoshop and write it all up for this week. (Grey Towers, or 'Liberal Towers' as I think I'm going to call it, will be online next week). A fear of online silence drove me to rummage through old boxes of "high society" research, where I came upon one of my absolute favorites among the vanished swells of yesteryear, namely, the lady pictured above, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, nee Marion Anthon, a.k.a. Mamie.

Mamie's husband, Stuyvesant Fish, as elegant and pedigreed an Edwardian era American as ever strolled into the Newport Casino, is pictured below. Fish wasn't hugely rich - Mamie used to say they had "only a few" millions - but in combination with his family background, those millions were enough to put him and his wife into the top drawer of New York Society. Fish's father was at different times the governor of and senator from New York, and eventually became U.S. Secretary of State. In an age of rich parvenus, the Fishes were a better class of families than the norm. Stuyvesant Fish even had a job, as the extremely effective president of the Illinois Central, the so-called "Society Railroad."

Mamie grew thicker and grimmer with age, but she maintained to the end a bracing sense of humor, one that terrorized those who knew her, and amused later researchers like myself. She had a wing man named Harry Lehr, the closeted gay man pictured below who is measuring us up from across the years. Harry and Mamie collaborated on outrageous stunts, creative parties, and rapid fire badinage of which, alas, little of record remains. When Harry cracked that Mamie's favorite flower was the climbing rose, she shot back that his was the marigold. Some of Mamie's cheeky talk appears in annals from the period. When a pompous visitor to Newport wondered where that great big new bridge had come from, Mamie growled, "I had it myself, and it was extremely painful." At huge parties in her Newport villa, she was wont to greet guests with lines like, "Oh it's you. I completely forgot I'd invited you." It takes a certain kind of mind to absorb a question like, "Has anyone seen cousin Alice?" consider the missing lady's good looking male assistant, and within a heartbeat chime in, "Have you looked under the secretary?"

Here's Harry and pal Charlie Greenough in Newport in 1909, at the height of the former's career as a social lion. Harry married a rich widow, a woman innocent to the point of dumbness but sufficiently rich to support them both in the company of a social set known in the columns as the "Ultra-Exclusives." Harry played the devoted husband in public, which fooled no one, and when he wasn't cracking jokes or playing pranks with Mamie - like covering a dachshund with flour, giving it a smack on the rump, and sending it scampering into the tearoom at the Newport Casino - he chased boys.

Mamie had a happy marriage to Stuyvie, as she called him, and raised well adjusted children who seemed unscathed by the limited access they had to their mother. The Fishes were Gramercy Park people initially but, like many of their friends, were inexorably dragged uptown by the tide of fashion. Stanford White, who had overseen alterations to the Fishes' Gramercy Park house, provided the design in 1898 for this new house at 25 East 78th St., notable for its elaborate ballroom.

Here's the house today, still standing but now gutted for institutional use. Inside it's all stainless steel, metal cables and industrial lighting, although the exterior remains essentially unchanged and an ornament to the neighborhood. This block of 78th Street, known as the Cook Block after the rich man who subdivided it, was a particularly grand Upper East Side block. A number of its houses have over the years had clumsy extra floors tacked on top, and just as many have had sweeping marble staircases replaced by mean metal-railed straight runs. Notwithstanding which, it's still pretty grand.

There was nothing I could do about that tacky truck parked out front. I had to get to work.

Here's a detail of Stanford White's iron railing, yet one more good reason to love big old houses. Not many people would bother with this sort of detail today, or even notice if it were missing.

Mamie's house in Newport, not designed by Stanford White, as I have thought for many years, but by a man named Dudley Newton, is called Crossways. At first glance, it seems to have survived pretty well. I don't like that modern window in the pediment over the porch, however. Some architect thought it complimented White's erudite Colonial Revival design, but I think it distracts. Worse are the ill proportioned screw-on shutters, for which someone should be taken out and soundly beaten. I know, I know, it's a condo now and no one wants to maintain shutters which actually close to cover the windows. But hey, if I had my way, those ridiculous plastic shutters would be thrown in a dumpster before you could say, "and it was extremely painful!"

13 comments:

  1. What a character she was. My great grandmother used to play cards with Mrs. Fish sometimes. Great Granny was a humble cook, but Mamie Fish apparently socialized with all sorts of people...not so much at Society events, of course, but in her own home she was evidently very democratic & down to earth.

    Here's a pic of Glenclyffe, the Fish's home in Garrison, NY. The estate is now called The Garrison Institute. The house itself has since been greatly enlarged, but this is what it looked like during Stuyvesant and Mamie Fish's occupation.
    http://image1.findagrave.com/photos/2010/8/46494627_126308808840.jpg

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  2. john,
    i enjoy your blog, i am curious as to how i can access your columns for the milbrook independent beyond the two that are cureently available.
    chipon1

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  3. The NY Times ran a nice piece on the Fish's Madison Avenue house in 2007. Here is the link:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/19/realestate/19scap.html?scp=7&sq=mamie%20fish&st=cse

    Alas, it appears that the interiors were dismantled long ago (the house was turned to institutional uses after Mr. Fish's death in 1923). The Times noted: "James L. Bodnar, an architect who worked on the interior several years ago, said there was “not a scrap” of the original left by the time he arrived."

    Still, it's a handsome structure.

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  4. John, I was interested in seeing the photo of Crossways in Newport. I have lived in Newport for many years, as did my parents before me. We lived in a Stanford White house, known now as Beachmound. It was once owned by Perle Mesta. It has been made into apartments, as have many of the old mansions in Newport.
    I was also interested in your comments on Halcyon Hall in Millbrook in previous posts. I visited Bennett College many years ago when I was looking at colleges. Sad to see what has happened to it since.

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  5. The first "Anonymous" above has posted a link to a terrific photo of Glenclyffe, the Fishes' country house on the Hudson in Garrison, NY. Many thanks. According to the website of the Garrison Institute, owners of the property today, their main building was originally built as a Capuchin monastery. It looks to me like the Fish house was demolished to make room for this structure. I can't see any architectural parallels between the two. The Institute's mission, again per the website, is to "apply the transformative power of contemplation to today's pressing social and environmental concerns." Commendable. Here's the link to their website: http://www.garrisoninstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=54&Itemid=63

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  6. John, it's true that the main building now being used by the Garrison Institue is the former Capuchin monastery, which was built in the 20th century on the northern part of the property. BTW, that's quite a nice building too. The Hamilton Fish house (later the Stuyvesant Fish House) is located on the southern end of the estate. For many years it was used as a convent, but it's been empty and unused for a very long time now. I found a fairly recent pic of Glenclyffe on Flickr. As you can see, the home has been enlarged and remodeled to the point that it might be virually unrecognizeable to Mr. & Mrs. Fish...if they ever came back to life, that is:)
    http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4140/4905462734_da94498b00_z.jpg

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  7. Virtually unrecognizable, is right. That poor old house. However, you are absolutely right about its being buried inside the larger building. I stared long and hard at the brick arch above the window over the front door, plus some of the windows to the left, before finally being able to make it out - sort of like "Where's Waldo?"

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  8. Hi John, I really like this post for it's story of the personalities that built and lived in these houses. It greatly enhances their " Brick and Mortar" for me.

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  9. When my husband, Jim, and I were newlyweds, he was stationed at the Newport Naval Base for several months. We had the pleasure and adventure of renting a little efficiency apartment that was located in the back rooms of Crossways. Now that Jim is deceased, just viewing photos of Crossways and reading others' comments takes me back to a very special time and place.

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  10. I think if you do a little digging you'll find that Stanford White did not design Crossways. Newport architect Dudley Newton designed the original house and the somewhat later ballroom addition.

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  11. You are so right. Dudley Newton was the architect. Thank you for correcting me.

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  12. What do you mean tacky truck? That's my vehicle!

    Reminds me of the Pruitts of Southampton, who with the Rolls being down were forced to be chauffer driven facing rear in the third seat of a old station wagon

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  13. I am currently reading "Empire" by Gore Vidal, and Mrs. Fish is one of the chatacters, throwing a party in Newport. Thanks for the background info and pictures.

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