The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred Twenty One

June  7-14, 1917

The jolly month of June, 1917 found Kate Shippen Roosevelt in many places.  From her small country farm in Hightstown, New Jersey to her ancestral home, “The Anchorage” located on the shore in Sea Bright, New Jersey, these destinations provided her diary with a different dateline each day, but, much like a homing pigeon, the one place that she always returned to was her grand apartment at 301 Lexington Avenue in the Murray Hill Section of Manhattan.  From here she entertained, discussed Roosevelt Family finances, chaired charity events, held rehearsals for amateur theatrical productions and often dined with her girl-hood chum, Florence Rhett, fondly referred to as “Folly.”  The two often accompanied each other to concerts, recitals and Broadway plays. Since Kate was a widow and “Folly” never married, the two “single ladies” often went out on the town together, sometimes to something extravagant but many times their outings were as simple as a drive in “Folly’s” motor.

Julia Marlowe in her motor car, ca. 1900

Florence Rhett could easily afford to own her own car, something rare for a woman in 1917.  She had been the governess/companion to J.P. Morgan’s three daughters and when he died in 1913 his last will and testament included a gift of $100,000 to Florence Rhett in gratitude for her years of service to his family, enough money to purchase an entire fleet of cars and keep up with her wealthy friend, Kate Roosevelt, former President Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin.

“Folly Rhett had a “tray” dinner with me at 301 Lexington Avenue.  We had a lovely drive in her motor up Riverside Drive and through Bronx Park then through Central Park.”  Two old friends enjoying a summer day in New York City was the scene painted in Kate Roosevelt’s diary on June 7, 1917.

The actress, Julia Marlowe

And speaking of friends, I wondered if they might have driven past the former home of their fellow Colony Club member and chum, the actress Julia Marlowe and reminisced about often seeing her behind the wheel of her open-air motor known as a “Victoria.”  The club, located on Park Avenue was a magnate for the upper crust, politically-connected, civic-minded, actresses and socially-active women in New York City.

Julia Marlowe was a Shakespearean actress who counted among her acclaimed contemporaries, Ethel Barrymore who many considered a bad influence on her friend, Alice Roosevelt, the president’s daughter.

Riverside Drive

Marlowe made her Broadway debut in 1895 and went on to appear in more than seventy productions there.  With the money from her theatrical successes she bought a townhouse known as “River Mansion” at 337 Riverside Drive in 1900 for $60,000. She sold the mansion in 1909 when she married her co-star, E.H. Sothern. The buyer was Lothar W. Faber, president of Eberhard-Faber Pencil Company.  The mansion went through several owners. It eventually became a boarding house and finally went back to being a private residence.

Soldiers and Sailors Monument

In 1917, when Kate Roosevelt and Folly Rhett were motoring along the meandering path along the park they most likely were reminded of its history.  The drive and south end of the park from West 72nd Street to West 125th Street was designed by noted landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead and his colleague, Charles Vaux in the 1870s with hopes it would rival ritzy Fifth Avenue.  The residential area was developed by the architect, Clarence F. True featuring rows of elegant mansions designed with elaborate cornices, ornate roofs and gables.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument at 89th Street was a tourist attraction and often crowded with visitors wanting to pay homage to the Union Soldiers who fought in the Civil War.  The white marble structure, known as the “Temple of Fame” was erected in 1902.

Visitors to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument

Their drive gave the two friends plenty of sights to see, memories to share and stories to tell.  One in particular that probably made the two sedate socialites shudder was the tale of Number 3 Riverside Drive. Built in 1896 by Philip and Maria Kleeberg, the eighteen-room limestone mansion was designed by society architect, Charles Pierrepont H. Gilbert in a style befitting its owner.  Kleeberg was a wealthy lace merchant who also invented the calculator.  He was successful in business but not his personal life.  In 1903, his wife, Maria excused herself as hostess of a dinner party and locked herself in her bedroom where she committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid.

The Kleeberg Mansion

When Kate and Flossy drove by the mansion that featured on its roof a marble cherub holding a basket of fruit they most likely admired its architecture but were appalled at the turn of events the home had been exposed to.  Since 1916, its owner, Dr. William Wellington Knipe had been running an experimental twilight sleep sanitarium from its hallowed halls.  Neighbors were appalled and filed a lawsuit.  They wanted him out and their peace and quiet restored.

Not ones to get involved with controversy, the ladies continued their drive, ending at the sedate surroundings of Central Park, another beautiful spot designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Charles Vaux.

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

Opening Photo:
Riverside Drive
Ephemeral New York, public domain, postcard

Photo One:
Julia Marlowe in her motor, ca 1900
Corbis, public domain

Photo Two:
The actress, Julia Marlowe
Museum City of New York

Photo Three:
Riverside Drive
postcard, public domain

Photo Four:
Soldiers and Sailors Monument
postcard, public domain

Photo Five:
Visitors to Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Museum City of New York

Photo Six:
Kleeberg Mansion Riverside Drive
public domain