The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Thirty-Four

September 20-27, 1917

No matter where Kate Roosevelt traveled, it was hard to get away from the winds of war moving every facet of life around in its wake. Since America had joined the Allies and declared war on Germany in April of 1917, no one was untouched, not even the well-connected widow Kate Roosevelt and so her diary entry for September 20, 1917 began, “Dorothy and I to Isabella Leffert’s at Head of the Harbor in St. James, Long Island to spend the night and attend the reception and dance at Lawrence Butler’s given for the officers of the Atlantic Fleet living offshore there.” Isabella Lefferts was the wife of Barents Lefferts, a well-off investment banker. They summered near the Long Island Sound and spent the winters at their townhouse at 136 East 79th Street in New York City.

General Joseph Bloomfield, Fourth Governor of New Jersey

While reading about her overnight stay at the Leffert’s estate, I was wondering if Kate had time to admire the masterpiece hanging in the library.  Painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1777, it is a portrait of Revolutionary War General Joseph Bloomfield. Years later, the painting was the subject of scandal. It was stolen from the Leffert’s home in 1958.  At the time it was worth, $40,000.  The thieves sold it to Mrs. Michael Mullaly of Charleston, South Carolina for $175.00. It was recovered in 1963 and donated by Isabella Leffertt’s children to the Frick Art Museum in New York City.

The dance and reception the Roosevelt women were attending was hosted by Lawrence Butler at his estate called “Bytheharbor” in the St. James section of Smithtown, Long Island. Butler, who need not ever work, dabbled in architecture, founded the Smithtown Horse Show and was a vestryman at the Episcopal Church of St. James, for which his town was named.

During World War One, in addition to providing recreation and entertainment for the troops waiting to go overseas, Butler, well -past the draft age, also acted as head of the Draft and Exemption Board of Suffolk County.  It was his job to determine who in his jurisdiction would be receiving an exemption of a notice to report for duty and set sail for the trenches on the Western Front.

Dr. Vincent Lyon was one of those officers attending the lavish reception in Long Island while his wife, Clara Lyon, was dining at Merdlemouth in Hightstown, New Jersey with family friend, Kate Roosevelt. His ship the Henderson, carrying equipment and supplies for a base hospital, surgeons and staff was awaiting orders to set sail for France.

Evert Jansen Wendell, the athlete

American-run base hospitals were set-up to treat the wounded troops. There were many scattered throughout the battlefields in France during World War One. One base hospital in particular made world-news when it was reported on September 22, 1917 that Evert Jansen Wendell had died there on August 28, 1917.  News didn’t travel speedily one hundred years ago, but Kate Roosevelt was quick to note when someone she knew was mentioned.

Her diary had an obituary from The New York Times pasted in her diary. The dateline read, “Paris, August 28, 1917. Evert Jansen Wendell dies in American hospital.” The Wendell’s were old friends of the Roosevelts with roots that ran deep in New York City.

Evert Jansen Wendell

Evert Jansen Wendell graduated from Harvard University in 1882, two years after, Kate’s cousin, Theodore Roosevelt.  While at Harvard, Wendell set records for track and field.

According to The Harvard Crimson, “Wendell died suddenly at Neuilly, France on August 28.  He had only shortly before arrived in Europe where he was assisting with aviation work.”

The article went on to say, “Mr. Wendell was born in Boston, December 5, 1860, but spent his youth in New York City. He gained prominence while at Harvard by running the100-yard dash in 10 1-4 seconds. It was due to his enthusiasm and energy that the first university track team was formed. He was captain all four years. After graduating Mr. Wendell continued to take a keen interest in athletics.”

Plaque Squantum Point Park Memorial

Like the Roosevelts, Mr. Wendell was a philanthropist. He organized clubs for the poor boys of New York City; was active in the Society for the Reformation for Juvenile Delinquents; the New York City SPCA; the Children’s Aid Society; the House of Refuge; New York Juvenile Asylum; Home for Seaman’s Children; New York Orthopedic Hospital; Hospital for Cripples, East Side House Settlement and the Five Point House of Industry. He was a true friend to the underprivileged and on most mornings welcomed a crew of newsboys who gathered at his doorstep on 38th Street seeking advice and encouragement.

While at Harvard, Mr.Wendell also honed his theatrical skills as a member of the Hasty Pudding Club, acting in plays written by Theodore Roosevelt’s friend from Harvard, Owen Wister. It was while meeting with Wister, best known best for his novel, The Virginian, in the White House and being interrupted by his daughter, Alice that President Theodore Roosevelt, said, “I can either be president or look after Alice, but I cannot do both.”

Hilborne Roosevelt Organ in Calvary Church

A member of the Player’s Club in New York City, Evert Wendell’s interests, in 1917 ranged from acting to aviation. When World War One broke out he promoted and sponsored the idea using airplanes in combat.  He was active in forming the Squantum Naval Air Station, originally known as the Harvard Air Field in Quincy, Massachusetts that trained pilots.

He sailed for France on behalf of the American Aero Club and to establish a fund for American Aviators overseas. He died in a base hospital in Neuilly, France from complications of diabetes. His funeral was held at Calvary Episcopal Church on Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) and 21stStreet in Lower Manhattan. When Kate went to pay her respects, it was to bid a friend farewell and reminisce.

Anna and Elliot Roosevelt

The church showcased a magnificent Hilborne Roosevelt Organ. It was also the church that Hilborne Roosevelt’s cousin, Elliot Roosevelt, married Anna Hall in 1883.  Newlyweds themselves, Kate and her husband, Hilborne Roosevelt, were among the list of impressive wedding guests. The following year, Elliot and Anna Roosevelt’s daughter, Eleanor was baptized there with Theodore Roosevelt acting as godfather.

So many memories meandering around every corner in New York City. It seemed wherever Kate Roosevelt turned there were reminders of her late-husband and deceased friends and family and shadows of sadness to come.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

Photo One:
Smithtown Horseshow

Photo Two:
General Joseph Bloomfield, Fourth Governor of New Jersey
Charles Wilson Peale

Photo Three:
Evert Jansen Wendell, the athlete
NYPL Digital Collection

Photo Four:
Evert Jansen Wendell
Courtesy Harvard Club

Photo Five:
Plaque Squantum Point Park Memorial

Photo Six:
Hilborne Roosevelt Organ in Calvary Church, Park Avenue and 21st Street, New York City

Photo Seven:
Anna and Elliot Roosevelt, 1882
Public Domain