The Dowager’s Diary: New York City’s Downton Abbey – Week Eleven

Just two days to Christmas, but before she could begin celebrating, Kate Roosevelt had a funeral to attend. Her diary entry for December 23, 1912 read, “To old Mrs. Jacob Wendell’s funeral.” At the time of her death she was 80 years-old, but the portrait of Mrs. Mary Barrett Wendell that is now part of the New York Historical Society’s Portrait Collection portrays someone other than a frail and elderly woman. Painted in 1888 when Mrs. Wendell was a middle-aged matron of 56 by the renowned portraitist, John Singer Sargent, this work depicts a woman who is anything but doddering. Even though she was an acquaintance of the Roosevelt Family and was quite well off, Mrs. Wendell had not established herself as a member of New York’s famous “Four Hundred,” when she sat for this portrait.


Mrs. Jacob Wendell

Critics of the painting have noted that her social unease is evident in this painting. It is obvious that even the expensive gown from Worth of Paris could not allay her apprehension. The dress is said to have been the one she wore to her son Gordon’s wedding in 1887 and features unusual iridescent beetle wings embroidery.

3. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, worth, paris,, le drapage du corsage chez worth, paris, 1907

Le Drapage du Corsage Chez Worth, Paris, 1907

The House of Worth was known not so much for its designs, but for the quality and uniqueness of the fabric its dresses were sewn from. Wearing this one-of-a-kind evening dress and black velvet choker, Mary Wendell is posed holding her long, narrow fan like a riding crop, looking like a woman on the hunt for acceptance into the upper echelon of egalitarian New York.

In Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America, prepared for the New-York Historical Society by Barbara Dayer Gallati, the sitter’s great-granddaughter Barbara Wendell Kerr is quoted, “My great-grandmother was not pretty, and according to all reports was an iron woman.” I couldn’t help but think that frank description would have been something that I would have read in Kate Roosevelt’s diary.

3. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, john singer sargant, 1888

John Singer Sargent, 1888

This portrait was commissioned during the end of Sargent’s first foray into portraiture in the United States during 1887-1888 and brought him $2,000. When it was commissioned, possibly the purpose of the portrait was to cement Mrs. Wendell’s footing more securely into the city’s social establishment. With studios in Paris and England, on this trip to the United States, Sargent was an “itinerant” artist of sorts and most likely this portrait was completed at the Wendell home, located at 8 East 38th Street. Though not popular in the social set, Jacob Wendell was a wealthy man. By 1892, his dry-goods house, J. Wendell and Company, was one of the largest in the nation, affording him membership in some of the swankiest men’s clubs in New York City including the Union League Club at 38 East 37th Street. Mrs Wendell’s portrait was shown there in 1902.

5. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, calvary church, from postcard, ca 1800

Calvary Episcopal Church from a postcard, 1880

Now 80 years-old and qualifying as an “old woman,” and hopefully more socially accepted than when her portrait was painted in 1888, a fitting farewell for Mrs. Wendell was held at Calvary Episcopal Church in the gated Gramercy Park neighborhood of lower Manhattan. Park Avenue was known as Fourth Avenue back then.

Knowing the Roosevelt Family’s ties to the area, I was sure that Kate had been in the church many times. Her late husband, Hilborne Roosevelt’s cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, was born only a few blocks away in 1858. Calvary was the church where many family members worshiped. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was baptized there in 1884.

8. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, edith wharton, e.f. cooper photo, beinecke rarr book and manuscript, yale library

Edith Wharton, 1920

Revered Roosevelt family friend, Edith Wharton was baptized there as well and used the church as the setting for her 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence. Dr. Ashmore, a character in the novel, was modeled after the church’s rector, Rev. Edward Washburn (1865-1881).

6. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, calvary, james renwick jr, columbia uni

James Renwick, Jr., 1912

As I read more about the construction of the Gothic Style church designed by the prolific ecclesiastical architect, James Renwick, Jr. in 1848, I began to wonder if the interior included a Hilborne Roosevelt Organ.

10. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, calvary, organ, roosevelt, 1886, new york organ

Hilborne Roosevelt Organ, Opus 374 Organ installed in Calvary Church, 1886

Sure enough, a Hilborne Roosevelt Opus 374 Organ was installed in Calvary Church in 1886, the same year the organ-inventor died. Thinking of the widow, Kate Roosevelt, I was sure she especially enjoyed the organ music and that its beautiful chords gave the “Old Mrs. Jacob Wendell,” a solemn and socially acceptable send off.

9. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, geraldine farrar, with child madame butterfly, 1908 loc

Geraldine Farrar, Madame Butterfly, 1908

This was turning out to be a day filled with music for Kate Roosevelt, sad selections at the morning funeral and in the evening songs of a tragic opera. “To opera to see Farrar in Butterfly.” I was pretty sure the Butterfly she was referring to was the famous opera, Madame Butterfly, but who was Farrar? Apparently if I was around in 1912, I wouldn’t have had to wonder. Geraldine Farrar was the operatic star, mentioned in the diary and in her day was quite the celebrity.

11. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, geraldine farrar, madame butterfly, 1907, base de dados do metropolitan opera new york, 1907

Geraldine Farrar in Madame Butterfly, Base de Dados, Metropolitan Opera, New York

On December 23, 1912 at the Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th Street, Kate Roosevelt and a cultured crowd of theater goers were entertained with the saga of this tragedy unfolding in the words and music of Giacomo Puccini. The morality of East versus West with Geraldine Farrar starring as the jilted Japanese lover provided a poignant story. Throughout her career, she sang the part of the beautiful Geisha, Cio-Cio-San, numerous times and was rumored to have had a seven year-long love affair with the opera’s conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

13. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, fao schwarz, 303 fifth avenue

FAO Schwarz 303 Fifth Avenue, New York City

On that note, I couldn’t help but hope that Kate Roosevelt had finally finished her Christmas shopping. Once known as The Toy Bazaar on West 23rd Street, FAO Schwarz now located at 303 Fifth Avenue, and the cavernous toy department at Macy’s on 34th Street, were just a limousine ride away or a convenient delivery drop to Mrs. Roosevelt’s home on Lexington Avenue. According to her diary entry for Christmas, 1912, I pictured a perfect day. “The ground was covered with snow and the tree was laden with gifts for Langdon Roosevelt Geer, Jr.” Langdon Geer, Dorothy and Langdon Geer’s two year-old son, was the apple of Kate Roosevelt’s eye and her grandson was often referred to as “the baby.”

14. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, fao schwarz, teddy bear, 1902

The Teddy Bear sold at FAO Schwarz, 1902

The diary did not list the gifts that Langdon, Jr. received but there was one toy I was pretty sure was sitting under the tree that year. In addition to toy horses and carts, steel express wagons, tool chests, and Daisy Air Rifles, the Teddy Bear was one of the most popular children’s toys of 1912. Of course, this stuffed animal was more than a toy, it had a story behind it and a relative’s name attached.

15. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, teddy bear cartoon, 1902, washington post

The original Teddy Bear Cartoon, Washington Post, 1902

The Teddy Bear came to life in November, 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt was on a bear hunting trip near Onward, Mississippi at the invitation of Governor Andrew H. Longino. The president was disappointed that he was the only one in the group who had not found a single bear. Roosevelt’s assistants, led by Holt Collier, a born slave and former Confederate cavalryman, cornered a black bear, tied it to a tree and alerted the unlucky hunter to come and shoot it. Viewing this as unsportsmanlike, Roosevelt refused to shoot the helpless bear. News of the sparing of the helpless animal spread throughout the country and, given Roosevelt’s reputation as a big-game hunter, the story took on a life of its own.

15. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, teddy bear, nps

Replica of the original Teddy Bear

A political cartoonist, Clifford Berryman, re-created the scene in the Washington Post where it caught the eye and the imagination of Brooklyn, New York candy shop owners, Morris Michtom and his wife, Rose. The couple made stuffed animals on the side and they decided to create a cuddly bear and name it the “Teddy Bear” in honor of the hunter who saved its real-life counterpart. The Michtoms received Theodore Roosevelt’s permission to use his name, began mass-producing the mascot, and established the prosperous Ideal Toy Company.

In addition to being a compassionate animal hunter, Theodore Roosevelt was also a caring conservationist and banned Christmas trees from the White House. His sons, Archie and Quentin were not in agreement and smuggled a live tree into family’s living quarters as a Christmas morning surprise.

16. photo, kate shippen roosevelt, georgina morton shippen, kate's mother

Mrs. Edward Shippen, Kate Roosevelt’s mother

The day finished up at the home of Kate’s mother, Mrs. Edward Shippen at 320 Lexington Avenue. For dinner, Kate wrote, “Terrapin (turtle soup) as usual.” Despite cousin Theodore’s former edict, Kate’s home had a live Christmas tree along with two Roosevelt Family traditions, terrapin and Teddy Bears.

Sharon Hazard’s The Dowager’s Diary will appear each Thursday on Woman Around Town. Click to read: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, Week Five, Week Six, Week Seven, Week Eight, Week Nine, and Week Ten. 

Photo One:
John Singer Sargent
“Portrait of Madame X,” 1885
Archives American Art, Smithsonian

Photo Two:
Mrs. Jacob Wendell
John Singer Sargent
oil on canvas
Gift of the Roger and Susan Hertog Charitable Fund and Jan and Warren Adelson
The New-York Historical Society

Photo Three;
Le Drapage du Corsage Chez Worth, Paris, 1907

Photo Four:
John Singer Sargent, 1888

Photo Five:
Calvary Episcopal Church from a postcard, 1880

Photo Six:
Edith Wharton, 1920
E.F. Cooper photo
Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts, Yale Library

Photo Seven:
James Renwick, Jr., 1912
Columbia Archives

Photo Eight:
Hilborne Roosevelt Organ, Opus 374 Organ installed in Calvary Church, 1886
New York Organ Project

Photo Nine:
Geraldine Farrar
Madame Butterfly, 1908
Library of Congrress

Photo Ten:
Geraldine Farrar in Madame Butterfly
Base de Dados, Metropolitan Opera, New York

Photo Eleven:
FAO Schwarz 303 Fifth Avenue, New York City
coutesy FAO Schwarz

Photo Twelve:
The Teddy Bear sold at FAO Schwarz, 1902
Courtesy FAO Schwarz

Photo Thirteen:
The original Teddy Bear Cartoon
Washington Post, 1902

Photo Fourteen:
Replica of the original Teddy Bear
National Parks Service, Sagamore Hill

Photo Fifteen:
Mrs. Edward Shippen, Kate Roosevelt’s mother
courtesy, Susan Geer D’Angelo, Kate Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter-in-law