Friday, January 18, 2019

DAY 4: Bar Harbor in the Gilded Age

Snow Point, Maine

In the summer of 1894, en route from London to Tokyo, Jennie and Randolph Churchill found themselves in Bar Harbor, Maine. They spent several weeks in a hotel, renewing old acquaintances among the summer residents. Jennie played the piano and danced the Boston--a modified American waltz--at the Kebo Valley Club. At the time, this was a hub of Bar Harbor's summer social life, offering dining, theater, tennis, a racetrack for surrey driving, and six holes of golf.

Kebo Valley Club, 1910

Jennie later described her time in Maine with a faint tinge of disappointment. She found it too similar to Newport, with endless paying of calls among women, social obligations, and multiple daily changes of dress. It's possible she was hoping for something closer to the wildness of her 1860s Newport childhood--a place of solitude and unspoiled beauty, defined by massive granite slabs and crashing surf.

But in the thirty years between nine-year-old Jennie's morning dashes in her donkey cart up and down Newport's Belleview Ave, and thirty-nine-year-old Jennie's determined hikes along the trails of Mount Desert Island, the Gilded Age had succeeded the Civil War Era. Old New York Society and the Titans of Industry had moved their summer lives and cottage habits further north.

Pussy Jones--who comes down to us now as Edith Wharton--suffered her first failed romances in Bar Harbor during the 1880s, including her flirtation with Walter Berry, who would remain in her life forever, and her brief engagement to Harry Stevens, the brother of Jennie's lifelong friend, Minnie Stevens Paget. Edith's brother Freddie Jones owned Reef Point in Bar Harbor, where his daughter, the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, would design and innovate until her death.

Edith's niece Beatrix Farrand
Reef Point, Bar Harbor, as it looked in Edith Wharton's day

And the Vanderbilts had discovered Maine. Alva Vanderbilt's father-in-law assembled three generations at Devilstone, a house now long since demolished, in the 1880s. But it was Alva's daughter, Consuelo, who fixes the place indelibly in our minds in 1894, the summer she was eighteen. Consuelo fell in love with a Bar Harbor polo player, Winthrop Rutherfurd, that year. She recalls bicycling ahead of Alva on a wooded trail to snatch a few moments of privacy with Winthrop, during which he hurriedly proposed marriage--and she accepted. Once Alva learned of the secret engagement, she practically imprisoned 
Consuelo Vanderbilt by John Singer Sargent
her daughter--according to Consuelo's memoir,
The Glitter and the Gold.  The following November, Consuelo married Jennie's nephew, Sunny, the Ninth Duke of Marlborough.

In her memoirs, Jennie recalls a dinner engagement at Pointe d'Acadie during that summer of 1894. This was the Bar Harbor estate of Alva's younger brother-in-law, George Vanderbilt, who loved Bar Harbor so much that for the outrageous price of $200,000, he purchased an existing estate on a point of land with phenomenal views. He doubled the size of the house, and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds. Pointe d'Acadie had Bar Harbor's first private swimming pool, ocean-fed and lined with granite--something Jennie wrote about later. She was both amused and shocked that men and women swam together in George's saltwater pool--such a promiscuous and unflattering display of flesh, as Jennie put it!

Pointe d'Acadie, George Vanderbilt home in Bar Harbor, 1890s
George would later go on to build Biltmore House, with its grounds also designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, outside Ashville, North Carolina.

For more images of people, places and fashion from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.

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