Despite all the dramatic alterations that ensued after 1904, Harbor Hill was essentially completed by 1902. Thereafter, for Katherine Mackay, a good deal of the rich person’s favorite pastime, building, had begun to loose its initial appeal. True enough, even after Stanford White’s murder, she had still had the pleasure of terrorizing, with demands and rebuffs, others who took up the business of completing Trinity Church, Roslyn, a lovely and lovingly planned monument to her parents memory. However, this was not enough to fill her days of leisure. Where for some, the duties of motherhood might have occupied the void, Katherine required far more. More even than an unending round of shopping trips, fittings, bridge games, lunch dates, parties, yacht cruises, golf games, coaching or race meets, horse shows, interviews, or tea-time nursery visits, were required to occupy her boundless energy and creative outlook.
What’s remarkable then, are all the unexpected places, persons and new experiences, her combination of curiosity, an ambition to make a difference and the “old ennui,” attract Katherine Mackay to them. The media adored her and she was always careful that most of her fine exploits be chronicled. So in looking back, she cast such a wide shadow, that one can never quite guess with certainty, just where she might show up.
Not long after Stanford White’s death, for instance, accompanying her pal Consuelo, Katherine had come face-to-face, with his murderer, mad Harry K. Thaw, at the notorious Tombs! The duchess, it was explained, had a message from his sister, the former Alice Cornelia Thaw, who was now the Countess of Yarmouth, another American heiress who’d married an aristocrat. More importantly, prison reform was an interest of hers. Katherine claimed merely to be supporting her friend, but she too had shown an interest in improving living conditions, for inmates.
Capernaum synagogue, another monument that ended in ruins.
Favorably positioned, close to New York, might Harbor Hill to have been rescued, repurposed and saved, successfully serving as a regional art museum, as a resort, a spa, a school or a catering hall? For many, the answer to such a question, pitting crude commerce and an exquisitely realized and irreplaceable architectural expression of distinctive beauty, the answer must be: Yes! For those, this is, one trusts, a multi-layered cautionary tale, And it is one, hardly discounting commerciall expedience, but rather instead, giving consideration to every kind of cost and loss at stake
Just as today, a century ago the success of ‘good causes,’ often depended on the charitable largess of affluent patrons parading piety and concern at festive public benefits. To give Booker T. Washington a good start toward collecting the $1,800,000 he wanted to endow Tuskegee Institute, Mark Twain, Joseph H. Choate, Robert C. Ogden, and Dr. Washington himself, organized a gathering at Carnegie Hall. It was billed as a "silver jubilee," since Tuskegee Institute was founded, in 1881. There were impassioned speeches by Secretary of War Taft, President Eliot of Harvard, Bishop Galloway, and Andrew Carnegie.
Naturally Katherine Mackay was there too. For society had turned out in full force, or at least, a certain segment of high society. Women in brilliant gowns, resplendent with jewels, and men in evening dress filled the boxes. Despite the object of the meeting, to get money from the posh audience with which to combat racist subjugation through instruction and training, an atmosphere of hilarity and lightheartedness prevailed. Notwithstanding the ‘Negro’ octet that sang between the speeches, somber melodies and revival songs, the mere presence of Mark Twain, as much as his wry remarks had prompted and sustained great gaiety.
Besides Mrs. Clarence H. Mackay, occupants of the boxes included Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Mrs. Henry H. Rogers, J. G. Phelps Stokes, Isaac N. Seligman, Carl Schurz, Mrs. W. H. Schieffelin, Mrs. William Jay Schieffelin, Mrs. Joseph H. Choate, Mrs. Henry Villard, Nicholas Murray Butler, Mrs. Cleveland H. Dodge, Mrs. Felix M. Warburg, Mrs. R. Fulton Cutting, Mrs. Collis P. Huntington, Mrs. Robert B. Minturn, Mrs. Jacob H. Schiff, Mrs. Paul M. Warburg, and Mrs. Arthur Curtis James.
This was one of those pioneer efforts that had brought together a diverse group of artists and socially prominent Jews, Catholics and the White Anglo Saxon Protestant elite. It is well worth noting these worthies, inasmuch as, many, would join Katherine latter, in an enterprise equally controversial.
1913: On top of being the focus of a raging scandal, how Katherine must have minded being shown in a hat from four seasons ago!
She explained how after at first having been staunchly opposed, she had only come to the cause of extending the franchise to women, by incremental degrees. If hosting a Harbor Hill picnic for school children and their parents had helped win election to the Roslyn School Board in 1905, attempting, even unsuccessfully, to eliminate corporal punishment, had gained her popularity among school boys who covered fences far and wide with the scrawl, “Mrs. Mackay is alright!” Tea for teachers, at her commodious estate, redecoration, at her own expense, of the teacher’s room, which, coincidentally, was where the school board met, had also found favor. Katherine was alas, unable to get a second school built, but indeed, in time, one was erected on a portion of Harbor Hill acreage that Clarence Mackay would present to the village. More importantly, coming into contact with working women, helping to make executive decisions that improved people’s lives, led Katherine Mackay, little by little, to see the wisdom of other women, other wives and mothers, being given more opportunity to shape public policy. Even then she was reticent, feeling that women should focus their attention on local concerns, leaving national politics to men. So, though it was Katherine Mackay’s activism as a suffragette that first involved Mrs. Belmont and her daughter in the cause, on this matter, they had stood in firm disagreement.
These three, Alva Belmont, her daughter, Consuelo, Duchess o Marlborough and Katherine, were always goading each other to venture further than they might have otherwise dared to go. In time, Katherine was won over by Mrs. Belmont's side, due to Counselo's gift for tactfulness. ‘But of course women had a rightful place participating in national politics too,’ Katherine came to decide. But as to the violently unbecoming, confrontational tactics of Emily Pankhurst and other radical English suffragettes, these she abjured completely.
Progressing from being among metropolitan New York’s first women school board members, to a full-fledged champion for women’s rights, unanimously Katherine Mackay was elected President of the Equal Franchise Society, that she helped to set up in 1908. Ably assisting Katherine, who in addition to being mother to two daughters and a son by this time, was still very much the active socialite, was one, Ethel Gross. What an unlikely candidate for Katherine Mackay’s secretary and assistant many thought she was. Decisively, the encounter had helped her to grow and to mature. Born Etelke Gross into an acculturated, middle-class, Hungarian Jewish family in 1886, Miss Gross immigrated to the United States at the age of five with her mother. Settling in New York's Lower East side, inhabiting the "typical, dark and airless dumbbell tenement," she left school in 1898 at the age of twelve, starting work as a counselor to younger children at Christadora House. Recently established, the East Village settlement meant to help assimilate the city’s foreign-born masses, had a Christian-affiliation. As private secretary to Katherine Mackay, Gross was enmeshed in all aspects of this organization targeting the rich, from helping to draft appeals, to marching in suffrage parades. Katherine established an office for the Equal Franchise Society in rooms at the Metropolitan Life Tower. At 505 Fifth Avenue, nearby, was Mrs. Belmont’s ’sister group, the Political Equality League.
1909: "Only what is real endures"
Whenever society super star, Katherine Duer Mackay had spoken out on the need for “women of all classes to work for civic improvement through the agency of the ballot box,” more than a decade before the 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920, she’d been quite eloquent. Her persuasive, approach, presuming male generosity even gallantry, was not so different from the flattering guise she had sometimes taken in order to cajole Stanford White. So it comes as something of a shock, learning, just how strident, imperious and insensitive, she could still be. Was it her youth, her privilege or self-righteousness, that caused her to momentarily abandon discretion and charm in such a way as to belie her skill as a perceptive political maneuver-er? Absolutely, her first serious public misstep toward the road for disillusionment, in addition to exhibiting uncharacteristic gracelessness, betrayed as well a central conflict that was to destroy the very marriage that had been made to fulfill her destiny.
Off and on, between 1905 and 1910, Clarence and Katherine had made their city residence for autumn and witer, the leased Theodore A. Havemeyer house at 244 Madison Avenue. This was the house in which their son John William Mackay would be born in 1907
Evidently, assisted perhaps by Stanford White, the Mackays made certain enhancements to their rented city house. Banked with palms and lilies for a party the entrance features wall sconces and a sedan chair of the same kind White provided for William Whitney.
On March 31, 1908 Katherine hosted a Sufferage lunch party that included such important matrons as Mrs. Alexander, Mrs. Aldrich, Mrs. J. J. Astor, Mrs. Belmont, Mrs. Blatch, Mrs. Corbin, Mrs. Catt, Mrs. Fabbri, Mrs. Goelet, Mrs. George Gould, Miss Ida Husted Harper, Mrs. Irvin, Mrs. Reginald de Koven, Mrs. Lydig, Mrs. Maynard. Miss Anne Morgan, Mrs. Miller, Duchess of Marlborough, Mrs. Nathan, Mrs. Pulitzer. Mrs. Speyer, Miss Tarbell, Mrs. Wm. K. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Winthrop.
The beginning of the end of Mrs. Clarence Hungerford Mackay’s reign as queen of Harbor Hill, ironically, came about as a consequence of her role as a philanthropist. She’d been advocate and the lady bountiful both, reforming education as a lady school board member. So when a young woman had had to seek funds for a new Brooklyn parochial school, the much publicized generosity of Katherine Mackay immediately sprung to mind. Perhaps, ‘Mrs. Mackay might like to contribute?’ shed thought. She was hardly prepared then, for the brusque reply she received from Saratoga:
Circa 1913: Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont
Miss B. A. McNamara:
Madame---Yours of the 15th has been forwarded to me here. In reply I wish to tell you that I absolutely disapprove of parochial schools of the Romanist faith, and consider them a grave menace to our country. Needless to say, I am not a Romanist, and will not help you.
Yours Truly, Katherine Mackay
The priest at St. John’s Catholic Church that was building the school, was taken aback as well. But all too aware of how he might utilize the grand Mrs. Mackay’s abrupt letter, to draw attention and funds to his project, he quickly recovered his composure and sprung to write a snappy response. He’d then saw to it, that both letters, were published in the New York Times. His read in part:
.…that you absolutely disapprove of parochial schools of the Romanist faith, and that you consider them a grave menace to our country, simply reveals a condition of mind. The opinion is characteristic. In the schools you dislike so much, we teach our children the ordinary courtesies of life. As an example, we would tell them the use of the word “Romanist” betrays bad form, and that nice. intelligent people would not be guilty of such a blunder.
Faithfully Yours, ROBERT H. DUHIGG Rector St John’s.
Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, in the New York Times, February 5, 1908, asserted that a good husband was a woman’s best assurance of happiness and that: “I think too well of women to imagine that they can benefit from mixing in the mire of politics… Any woman of brains, I will not say beauty, but of charm and attractiveness, can draw what she needs from most men…” , But thanks to the efforts of Katherine Mackay and Mrs. Belmont, in the New York Times of January 16, 1910 she would concede , how she’d ‘been won over to the cause of votes for women…’
What an affront this episode must have seemed to many, not least, to Katherine’s friends who were Roman Catholic. It could hardly to have failed to outrage her husband and his devout mother as well. Hence, there were hints quietly raised early on in the Mackays' marriage, that all was not well, that mutual enchantment was fading. But for a long time no such disharmony was broached publicly, as the ‘golden couple’, sailed on, seemingly, from triumph, to triumph.
That Clarence Mackay, a leading businessman often embroiled in the rough and tumble, of labor relations, had reservations about granting the franchise to women without reservation, is made clear by the letter excerpted below . It was addressed by Katherine to a fellow suffragist, the crusading writer and lecturer, Harriet Eaton Stanton Blatch, daughter of pioneering women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton:
FEB 27 4:30 PM 1908
T. Miss Anne Fitzhugh Miller, The Stratford 11 East 32nd St.
ONLY WHAT IS REAL ENDURES
My dear Mrs. Blatch:
Your wire has just come, and I am delighted that you will accept my invitation for luncheon Friday, but instead of lunching at Delmonico's, my husband wishes us to come down to his office, & lunch with him. Colonel Harry will be there too. My husband is anxious to meet you, & to listen to you, and I want you to convert him from his present attitudes of partial suffrage for Educational & Philanthropic officers only.--Col. Harry believes in suffrage, & seems ready to help the cause, & as you know he runs several magazines, & has a clever political instinct, he is a valuable co-operator.---Surely it will be worth while to interest these two men, & to explain what kind of a campaign you plan for the coming year and that is why I am so glad you will take this opportunity…
With friendly greetings,
Katherine and the Duchess of Marlborough
Was Clarence Mackay ever fully won over as society leader and famous wag Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish was? He was to the extent of accompanying his wife to high profile events like the Woman’s Suffrage Banquet, but, he must have been preoccupied. For, just age thirty-four, in 1908, his life was at risk. Clarence Mackay had been diagnosed with cancer. He survived only due to the renowned skill of his surgeon, a personal friend, Doctor Joseph Blake. Dr. Blake was a frequent house guest at Harbor Hill. How had he and Mackay originally met, one wonders? His meeting with Katherine at a suffragists’ meeting is documented. So, did she introduce Clarence to the man who saved his life, but ‘stole’ his wife?
In appearance, Dr. Blake, if anything, looked like a slightly older version of Clarie, raising the question, what was it about him, exerting such great appeal?
If nothing else, Katherine Mackay’s foray into literature, proved one thing. Incurably, helplessly, hopelessly, she was a romantic to her fingertips. Deep in Harbor Hill’s woods, she maintained a rustic cottage retreat, called, her ‘Hameau’. This referenced Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine. This was a farm, with the most elegant interiors imaginable behind the camouflage of a peasant hamlet, built in the park of the Château de Versailles according to designs by Gabrielle. For once Katherine’s fantasy was more straight-forward than her ultimate role model’s. Harbor Hill’s Hameau, was just a cabin, in a glade. Katherine’s “Gabrielle. A Dream from the Treasures Contained in the Letters if Abelard and Heloise, published in the venerable North American Review, in 1903, was similarly direct. As the title predicts, it is a full-blown romantic swoon, suitably delivered in lofty language, from cover to cover. Nothing if not consistent, this applied equally to “Stone of Destiny,” which Harper & Brothers brought out the following year.
'Blake Lodge', Katherine and Joseph Blacke's summer house at Bar Harbor was a far cry from Harbor Hill
A famous healer of his fellow beings, the visionary who conceived of the comprehensive Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Dr. Blake projected a different sort dynamism from Clarie’s more convention sportsman-connoisseur. Moreover, for someone of Katherine’s temperament, a disillusioned believer in ‘true love’ and ’destiny,’ there can have been few things so attractive as, a well-respected prosperous man, willingly risking all he had, courting society’s condemnation, for the sake of, the woman he loved.
Circa 1915: Mrs. Joseph Augustus Blake by Boldini
Soon enough reports surfaced to the effect, that, the aggrieved Mrs. Joseph Augustus Blake, the mother of three, would file for divorce and sue Katherine Mackay for alienating her husband’s affections. She would seek damages for $1-million, comparable to someone seeking a billion dollar judgment today! To those in-the-know signs of an impending divorce between the Mackays had been evident for some time. Katherine’s having renounced her rights to her most glorious wedding gift of Harbor Hill, which was placed in trust for her young son, was telling, people said. So was her hasty resignation from the school board and the leadership of the Equal Franchise Society,
Circa 1917: John William, Clarence, Ellin and Katherine Mackay
Today, many upper class people might happily invite a gay couple for the weekend and coyly provide them adjoining rooms. By now, divorce was dealt with in this spirit. Among the very richest set of people, if divorce had not yet become a kind of raffish new fashion, thanks largely to Mrs. Belmont’s example, it was gaining ever greater acceptance. Certainly, divorce and ostracism, were no longer synonymous. Katherine and Claire had discussed the idea early and often evidently, but the requirement under New York law, of a ‘guilty’ party, made an unofficial separation, with their lives largely led independently, more sensible. What changed things was the discovery of no-fault divorce, obtainable in France even were one not French. Unexpected, Clarence Mackay’s cancer, and Dr. Blake’s seduction both sped up the an inevitable parting. Events poisoned the dissolution of the Mackays’ marriage as well.
A century ago, in September of 1913 Katherine Mackay divorced her husband in Paris. With the start of the World War in August Blake operated a hospital to care for French soldiers. Katherine toiled dutifully by his side as a nurse. In November, 1914, one day after his divorce was finalized, Katherine and Dr. Blake, took a break from sugary and without fanfare, were married. Inexplicably, the first Mrs. Blake had called off her court case threatening Katherine. However, after her divorce decree had been granted, her ex-husband’s remarriage imminent, she told a reporter, she hoped that, ’the ex-Mrs. Mackay would know all the unhappiness she deserved…’
Built in 1904, number 3 East Seventy fifth Street was designed by C. P. H. Gilbert for John Duncan, the importer of Lea & Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce. Soon after April, in 1920 negotiations were finalized to sell the house for $750,000 to Clarence Hungerford Mackay. The master of Harbor Hill would maintain this as his city house until his death seventeen years latter
The Blakes, who lived on quietly in Paris during war, afterward settled Upstate and at Bar Harbor. They had three daughters and a son. Professionally, Dr. Blake seems to have suffered little consequence from either leaving his wife and children, or from ‘taking’ the wife of a friend and patient. For Katherine Blake societal assessment was harsher. Branded a mother who had selfishly ’abandoned’ her children and husband, she was shunned by many who had once so sought her company and approbation.
In some ways, it seems that the parting curse the first Mrs. Blake, had intoned against the second, had come to pass. What pathos there was in Katherine Mackay having also contracted cancer. With the same skill and care that he’d administered to ‘cure’ Clarence Mackay, Blake tended to the woman they had both loved. Sadly, even so, Katherine Blake was to loose an eye to cancer. But as a consolation, she soon learned that her remaining sight had grown even more acute. As a consequence it had not taken very much time for her to realize that her husband and her young nurse, had embarked on a torrid love affair. Divorced from the esteemed Dr. Blake in 1929, a chastened Katherine carried on as elegantly as ever. The good doctor had remarried–for a third time–almost immediately.
1924: The golden agr of Harbor Hill
Despite her new life and family for years Katherine Blake endured a kind of exile, separated from Harbor Hill. In her place her combative former mother-in-law presided over a domain that had been decreed for her. That was for the sake of public notice. Discretely, not behind the scenes, but always, almost. properly chaperoned, Clarence Mackay, had a mistress. He refused to even broach the idea of remarrying after the divorce. In the eyes of the church, marriage was insoluble and his wife yet lived. So entreating the Prince of Wales in 1924 and Lucky Charles Lindbergh in 1927, his mistress was present and many were aware of the status she held, but officially, it was Mother Mackay, called mammy by her family, who was the hostess of grandiose Harbor Hill.
How typical that society should have viewed Clarence Mackay as injured and abandoned, embracing him even as he carried on openly with his paramour. Katherine by contrast, was cast by many as a gold-digging adventurous from the first, who deserting her home, was justly suffering the consequences. In many houses, she was no longer received. Bolstering her throughout this ordeal was her daughter Ellin Mackay, in the middle among the offspring from her first marriage. Blond, beautiful, and impetuous like her mother, Ellin also shared Katherine’s gift as a writer. First in the family to reestablish contact with her mother, though loyally avoiding her new spouse, their relationship deepened once Ellin found she had a champion when she fell deeply in love with a man almost everyone else thought was all wrong.
'Happy House', was what John and Gwen Mackay named their estate adjoining Harbor Hill. A rambling dwelling, it was based on sixteenth century prototypes in England’s Cotswold’s and was designed by John W. Cross, of Cross & Cross. In 1957 the J.W. Mackays would leave this wedding present house, for historic 'Matinecock Farm' in Lattingtown.
It was not altogether a chance to do combat with her ex-husband that had made Katherine Blake back her daughter up. It was not even because through her varied suffrage activities, Katherine had come to know a greater diversity of people, and established greater ties of intimacy than he had. No, when Ellin Mackay found herself in love with Irving Berlin, the composer, a Russian immigrant and a Jew, when she threw down a gauntlet to her father and her class, taking her first subway ride to marry him at City Hall on January 4, 1926, her mother had given her blessing. Why? For sure it was not only because Ellin acted against her father’s expressed wishes, but because, it had all happened before, with everything turning out fine!
Though also Jewish and an immigrant, educated in Frankfurt, Germany, a partner of his family's banking house, Lazard Speyer-Ellissen, James Speyer had not been born poor. This usually propitious particular however, had made little difference when it came to his audaciously presuming to marry one of New York’s WASP elite. “A man who has been in love with me for some months wants to marry me. Please give me your advice….I should like to accept him…but you see he is a Jew….” the would-be bride had pleaded.
Anna Case (1888–1984) of Clinton, New Jersey would become Clarence Mackay's second wife. She was a lyric soprano who sang with the Metropolitan Opera and as a concert soloist. Encountering her at musical events from time to time, taken with her beauty and the quality of her voice, around 1916, Mackay engaged her to perform at a musical he held at home. She so pleased him, that he had sent a railroad carload load of flowers to her at her next Carnegie Hall recital, enclosing a small diamond band with an enamel bluebird in the center, emblematic of the happiness he felt in her company.
This sad speech, we are told by that dazzling chronicler of Gilded Age high life, Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, was made contritely to, THE Mrs. Astor, by a widow, Ellin Dyneley Prince Lowery. The year she implored that she not be outcast for the affront of marrying a Jew, was 1897! According to Mrs. Lehr, this was the first alliance between a Jew and a member of society. Its moment, notwithstanding an earlier infiltration made by the Belmont family, Mrs. Lehr makes most plain, reflecting on a consensus of opinion among her set, at the close of the nineteenth century. Certain of Mrs. Lehr‘s colorful descriptions and designations are indicative as well, of biases persisting in 1935:
A Jew! Such a marriage would violate one of the fundamental principles of the Four Hundred’s code. While half the ancient families of Europe had allied themselves with the race of Israel, while the English aristocracy following the lead of Edward VII, not only tolerated but held out welcoming arms to its swarthy sons and daughters, American society had withstood the invasion….
“Who is he?” THE Mrs. Astor had inquired solicitously.
“James Speyer,” Mrs. Lowery replied. “I want to marry him, but I can‘t if it means losing all my friends…” At length, THE Mrs. Astor had put her fretting friend out of her misery. She was assured that everyone had such fondness for her, that they must do whatever it took to keep her close to them.
With Katherine Blake's death in 1930, Clarence Mackay and Anna Case were married at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Roslyn, New York the following year. Clarence regarded his new wife, as a woman who had stood by him without complaint, forsaking the spectacular sort of collection of gems, which propriety had previously prohibited him from giving her. So notwithstanding recent monumental financial losses, his wedding gift, was a remarkable necklace of emeralds and diamonds, beautifully set in platinum. Its Colombia emerald pendant, weighing 167.97 carats, is the largest cut emerald in America. The necklace it adorns was designed by Boucheron. At her death, in 1984, Anna Case Mackay bequeathed this magnificent jewel to
the Smithsonian Institution.
As Lilly Bart learned and the perspective Mrs. Skeffington appreciated from the start, it was indeed well that THE Mrs. Astor should extend her ‘acceptance’. To begin, her friend was already past fifty, Speyer, in addition to being quite rich, was eleven years younger. Secondly, this friend of THE Mrs. Astor's, had been left so badly-off with her first husbands death, that she had taken a decidedly un-lady-like step. Putting baking skills to good use, with a similarly hard-up friend, she opened a group of popular tea shops. Since her fashionable friends had not failed her then, she’d been a success.
First connected with the Paris and London branches of his family’s firm, James Speyer had come to New York to start a bank that was all his own. In addition, he was one of the founders of the Provident Loan Society, a trustee of the Teachers' College at Columbia University, to which he presented the Speyer School and also a trustee of the Museum of the City of New York. Perhaps his most lucrative pursuit was acting as financial agent for the railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. Only Speyer’s pro-German sentiments during the Great War, meaning his London office had had to close, diminished his bank’s preeminence. With a new world conflict, in 1939, the York branch of Speyer & Co. shut down. Even so, what an eventful life, filled with purpose, the Speyer’s had managed to make together.
1937: Reduced, in financial terms, by catastrophic losses suffered during the Great Depression, to but a shadow of his former self, Clarence Mackay still managed to retain Harbor Hill and a few of the art works he prized most. When his cancer reoccurred, Anna Mackay provided essential care and support that helped to sustain him. With the necessity of giving up Harbor Hill imminent, his death in 1938, might be looked on as somewhat merciful
Katherine Blake knew all about Mrs. Speyer’s saga, about the fine Horace Trumbauer designed Fifth Avenue house her Jewish husband had built for her. Besides a town house, he gave her ‘Waldheim’, their peaceful country place on the Hudson. By marrying Speyer, a once genteel but poor nonentity, in a stroke had gained houses, cars, jewels and position, becoming a contender in New York City, both socially and in terms of a remarkable philanthropic contribution. It took some time, but the example caught on.
Ellin Prince was a first cousin of Katherine Blake’s mother. In fact, as an orphan, she’d been raised with her mother, the family of Katherine’s grandfather William C. Travers. Katherine’s two aunts had married John Hecksher and Walter Gay, the painter of interiors. Katherine considered Mrs. Speyer to be like an aunt as well. And so, she had realized that if Ellin Speyer’s married life could be happy, that Ellin Mackay’s, with the most successful popular song writer in America, just might be too.
19o6: Ellin Mackay
Ellin Mackay would remained married to Irving Berlin until her death in 1988. Described as a loving couple, they had three daughters: Mary Ellin Barrett, Linda Emmett, and Elizabeth Peters. An only son, Irving Berlin, Jr. died in infancy, on Christmas day, in 1928. This had been only a short span after the death of his great-grandmother, Louise Hungerford Mackay. The old lady’s dying wish had been that her son Clarie and his daughter might reconcile. And, after three years of pretending that his middle child was dead, the loss of this grandson was to effect, just that.
Just what sort of man was Clarence H. Mackay anyway? Reunited after much mutual enmity, suddenly sharing in joyful celebration, as their son married, Clarie and Katherine reconnected. But, what had it meant, this reunion of former adversaries? According to their granddaughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, in her captivating history, Irving Berlin, A daughter’s Memoir, from this moment, Clarie had begun to call on his now visibly ill former wife, but to what purpose?
1928: Still in the wilderness, the Berlins visit the Atlantic City boardwalk
Can it be true? could any person who had once really loved someone, become so thoroughly, terribly cruel, merely in order to exact some measure of revenge? Did Clarence Mackay really one day come along bearing a little box? From it, had he actually taken a jeweled ring? Smiling, had he knowingly slipped it onto Katherine’s trembling shrunken finger? Mrs. Barrett maintains that, as if in fulfillment of her dying grandmother’s fondest daydreaming, that indeed, he had.
Proud Katherine, had responded with a gift of her own. She forswore the faith of her parents and ancestors. She took instruction from a priest and became a "Romanist"!
What a gesture, but what did Clarence feel about this capitulation? Forever, Katherine ended what Mrs. Barrett contends had caused their greatest conflict. But from his actions, it is difficult to determine what Clarence Mackay thought about her relenting. Katherine, daily ebbing in and out of consciousness, during brief intervals awake, waiting, watching, repetitiously had inquired, 'Where's Clarie?' “ Before too long, we’ll be back on easy street, back in the castle on the hill. We’ll have a wonderful life again,” she’d told the young daughters she'd borne Dr. Blake wistfully speaking of the house she’d created with her first husband. “Where's Clarie?” she’d asked, one last time before dying. Abruptly, without word, he had gone away. But Ellin's comforting response, betrayed not even the slightest hint that anything was amiss, 'He’s preparing your room at Harbor Hill...’
Had Clarence Mackay only meant to be compassionate as well, extending a foolish dream to a dying woman he once had loved, a woman who was just fifty years old, a woman her daughter Ellin summed up after her passing with the tender but frank observation,
How much she had of beauty and brilliance and glamour...How lovable she was and how much courage she had and how little wisdom...
Katherine Blake's Aunt Ellin Speyer, whose happiness after marrying a Jew, made her realize that Ellin Mackay might be happy too, marrying Irving Berlin
Ellin and James Speyer with guest at 'Waldheim', second from the left and on the far right
Saying her Mackay offspring had been well provided for with trust established by their grandfather John William Mackay, Katherine Blake left the entirety of her gross estate, $817, 658.00, in trust for her three daughters and son by Dr. Joseph Agustus Blake.
Katherine Blake's final home in New York at 12 East Eighty-seventh Street was designed by brothers George and Edward Blum of the partice, Blum & Blum
Owning books worth $29,233.00 and silverware valued at $4,397.00, the most important individual object among her possessions, was an Aubusson tapestry. Woven from silk and wool, bearing royal French coat of arms, it was appraised at $1,500.00. At the time of her death the tapestry was hanging in the penthouse apartment with a roof garden at 12 East Eighty-seventh Street, that Katherine leased for ten years in 1929. In better days, it hung over the staircase at Harbor Hill.
Could she have faced it had she lived and Clarence Mackay had been disposed to getting back together? Might she have laughed heartily at the sardonic financial collapse dictating Harbor Hill's doom, followed by recurrent cancer, spelling Clarie's demise? Perhaps, but one can never know for sure.
Is it true? Do those victimized by bigotry and discrimination, always seek some group or groups, more vulnerable, to oppress in return? Certainly, rather than confront the Protestant elite that had demeaned him and his family, Clarence Mackay had determined to join them instead. Far from decrying their narrow outlook, on the whole he had embraced all their prejudices and even their notions of innate superiority. No Jews’ names appeared on the guests lists of his lavish entertainments. As a greater consequence of prevailing anti-Semitism, it’s said that notwithstanding serving on boards with fellow art and opera lovers, Julius Bache and Otto Khan, that Clarence Mackay had refused to ever do any business with Jews. Even when it had meant undermining his company’s interests, for Clarence Mackay religious scruples had precluded dealing with descendants of the killers of Christ.
Selling the Postal Telegraph Company his father started and he caused to flourish, Clarence Mackay had reached the zenith of his career. Richard Guy Wilson says that he was aware of impending ‘trouble’ with the marketplace, that this was why he’d sold out to Sothnes Behn Brothers, the parent firm of International Telephone and Telegraph Company, in 1928. The terms seemed favorable enough. Mackay was to chair the merged companies’ United States’ division. He received payment totaling nearly $300-million! Why had he taken this payment in stock? Undoubtedly, where Mackay was concerned, the issue was a matter of exerting control. Ironically then, it’s not hard to understand, that when in the next few years, ITT’s share price plummeted, from $149.00, in 1928, to just $3.45, in 1937, Clarence Mackay was ruined.
1928: Irving Berlin with his daughter Mary Ellin
1932: The Berlins with their daughters, Mary Ellin and Linda. Linda had been named for their friend, Mrs. Cole Porter
1930: Mrs. Irving Berlin photographed by Cecil Beaton
With the ‘Bank Holiday’ in 1932, Clarence Mackay sold some of his most notable artworks, armor and tapestries. At Harbor Hill expenses were slashed and the staff was cut back, with salaries reduced for any workers who stayed on. Yet still, by 1933 Harbor Hill had still had to be closed. The Mackays moved into the house of the long-serving estate superintendent near Glen on Cove Road. Katherine and Clarie had lived here as newlyweds anxiously awaiting completion of their new house. Mr. Hechler and his family in turn, moved into the former tennis pro's house.
Come June, 1935, Mackay’s personal financial condition improved somewhat. He and his wife were able to resume residence at Harbor Hill, albeit with a staff reduced still further. That the situation was still dire, was shown in July 1935. That was when the Postal Telegraph Company filed for bankruptcy.
Clarence Mackay left his beloved beautiful country estate for the last time on November 8, 1938. Four days later he died, age sixty-four at his imposing city house across Fifth Avenue from Central Park, 3 East 75th Street. The funeral, conducted at St. Patrick's Cathedral, was Clarence Mackay’s final ceremonious pageant.
By now, with one hundred acres adjoining the harbor front sold-off in 1932, Harbor Hill’s acreage was already diminished. By the agreement made between his parents, it had been held in trust for John W. Mackay. Well enough provided for by the provision of other trusts he enjoyed an upper class existence with frequent travel, a New York apartment, a county house and servants.
Starting in 1932 Irving and Ellin Berlin took a duplex penthouse in the fourteen-storey cooperative apartment building designed by Emery Roth in 1929 at 130 East End Avenue. At the edge of Carl Schurz Park and Gracie Square it looked out over Hell Gate along the East River.
Moving by 1940, Irving Berlin fifty-one-years old, a Russian immigrant who had left public school after completing the eighth grade was on top of the world. Ellin Berlin, his lovely wife was thirty-one. Their daughters: Mary Ellin Berlin, was thirteen, Linda L. Berlin was eight and Elizabeth J. Berlin just three. Living in a sedate house at 129 East Seventy-eighth Street, rented for $335.00, they were all looked after by a large household of helpers. If they no longer employed a butler. As they had at East End Avenue, they were still amply attended to.
Jenet Tennant forty-eight, was the English child nurse. Nellie Willis forty-one, was Ellin’s English lady’s maid. The parlor maid, who answered the door, served and meals and cleaned the drawing room, was Florence Phisholin, a thirty-one year old Canadian. Jessie Taylor, forty-eight was English and presided over the kitchen, assisted by twenty-two year old Rose Fore from Ireland who was kitchen maid.
Russian painter Savely Sorie's portrait of a demure twenty-year old Ellin gases out over he elegantly subdued drawing room with its midnight-blue carpet
A lamp formed from a rose-quartz Chinese incense burner
The river view
Irving Berlin's double-height library upstairs was at times the family living room in addition to being the studio in which he composed from a specially devised transposing, upright piano
Eighteen feet of knowledge including Havelock Ellis, on the top shelf
Number 17 Beekman Place, the quintessence of urban elegance
By 1946 the Berlins and there three daughters moved into a dignified Georgian Revival house. Number 17 Beekman Place, had been designed by Fredrick Sterner and built for James V. Forrestal, a Wall Street banker, in 1932. For this drawing room the carpet is cream-colored, Louis XVI fauteuils are recovered in blue damask and Katherine Blake's Boldini portrait is center stage. The small oil study nearby is by Ellin Berlin's uncle, Walter Gay
The Berlin's inviting dining room with an inherited Sèvres porcelain garniture and Coromandel lacquer screens.
Happily living here for the remainder of their lives, 17 Beekman Place was the scene for many memorable events. In 1948 this was where their daughter Mary Ellin was married to Mr. Dennis Sheedy Burden. A seemingly impeccable WASP socialite, whom her grandfather would no doubt to have commended, Burden was, as everyone had tried telling her, 'all wrong'. Both a Christian clergyman and a Rabbi gave their blessings, but to no avail. After just one year of married life, Marry Ellin had come to agree with everyone else. Happily, sometimes there are second chances
One-hundred-and-two years old when he died, Irving Berlin's former home is now known as Luxembourg House, home to the Permanent Mission of Luxembourg to the UN, the Consulate General of Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Tourist Office. In our time, such houses have become no more viable as private residences, than Harbor Hill
Particularly gracious, was the caring way Ellin Berlin looked out for her half-brother and sisters. In 1933, she led her Mackay siblings in hosting a joint debutante dance for the two eldest. The Time storey read:
The Misses Katherine and Joan Blake, daughters of Dr. Joseph A. Blake and the late Mrs. Duer Blake, were introduced to society last night at a large supper dance in the Crystal Room of the Ritz-Carlton, given jointly by Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth O'Brien, Mr. and Mrs. Irving Berlin and Mr. and Mrs. John W. Mackay.
1934: Joan Blake wasted little time fefore wedding Henry H. Harjes, in what the Times described as a; "Colorful Ceremony in Church of Heavenly Rest Unites Prominent Families." Alas, Mrs. Harjes' divorce was not long in the offing
Ellin Berlin was especially clever in the way she updated her mother's jewels
This emreald on a diamond chain sold not long ago in Hong Kong for over $2-million
1953: Ellin Berlin bedecked in emeralds and diamonds her father had given to her mother as her husband and daughter Mary Ellin Berlin look on
Diamond clips from Cartier given to Ellin Berlin by her husband in 1944
Ellin Mackay Berlin writing about her grandmother, Louise Mackay, produced Silver Platter, an engrossing work, published in 1957. This was her third novel published by Doubleday. The others were Land I Have Chosen, and Lace Curtain. A later novel, The Best of Families, that appeared in 1970, was autobigraphical as the others had been.
Mary Ellin Barrett is eldest of the Berlins’ three daughters. Emulating the example of her mother, she is the author of three novels, American Beauty, An Accident Of Love and Castle Ugly.
Prodigious and affecting story telling is a perennial gift that seems to have been passed from mother to daughter, starting with Katherine Mackay. They are a veritable dynasty of writers. Each is never better, than when telling their tale and making it ours
After the very top treasures from Clarence H. Mackay’s storied collection were left to his family, with others sold to museums and still high flying collectors like Samuel Kress, much still had remained to be dispersed. Rather ingloriously, in the company however, of another magnate-collector laid low, William Randolph Hearst, a trove consisting of four thousand objects, furnishings, armor, porcelain, tapestries, linens and more was, dispensed, starting in 1941, at the Gimbel Brothers Department Store. Via so humble a venue, sores were enabled to purchase their piece of history quite often at bargain basement prices.
As his finances worsened Clarence Mackay sold this masterful work by Mantegna, Adoration of the Shepherds, from 1495-1505, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Neither Clarence Mackay‘s son, nor many others had been in any position to maintain a property like Harbor Hill, one requiring a mint of money and a phalanxes of retainers. Indeed Clarence's vastly depleted estate valued at close to $3-million, had been left to young Mackay’s stepmother. Lacking the means to keep Harbor Hill, in 1940 John William Mackay leased fifty acres to the US Army Air Corps for what later became known as the Roslyn Air Force Station. Poorly attended to, his father’s house and the other estate buildings gradually fell forlornly into disrepair. In a spectacular explosion, the house was demolished with dynamite in 1947. Harbor Hill was then acquired by a developer. The community of modest speculative houses built on Harbor Hill in the late 1950s and early 1960s is known as Country Estates.
Retained by his widow, Anna Case Mackay, this lovely bust was a bequest to the Metropolitan Museum, in memory of her husband Clarence H. Mackay. Depicting a noble lady, its believed to be by Mino da Fiesole? Mino di Giovanni ? An Italian, of Papiano or Montemignaio 1429–1484 Florence
Among the most cherished objects in Mackay's collection, was this celebrated painted terracotta bust of Lorenzo de' Medici, made in Florence at close of the 15th, or at the start of the 16th century, probably after a model by Andrea del Verrocchio and Orsino Benintendi. Today it is owned by the National Gallery in Washington where the more vibrant original colors have been restored
Vainly seeking to purchase this superlate suit of parade armor made for Henry II of France around 1555, following designs by Etienne Delaune. even whilst selling-off lesser treasures, Mackay had aquired if anyway. An ubrivaled example, although it might have been prudent to, he never let it go
Both in aesthetic terms and in regard to their poetical narrative, many of Mackay's tapestries, such as this example from the Fifteenth century, showing scenes from the Trojan War, were unsurpassed.
Hector is watched putting his armor on, while Andromache on her knees, with her two children, her mother Hecuba, and her ladies, tries to persuade him not to go to battle
Clarence Mackay and all his children are now gone. Anna Case, his second wife, was the former Metropolitan Opera soprano who had sung the role of Sophie, in the first American production of Strauss's ''Der Rosenkavalier'', in 1913. In 1984, Mrs. Mackay died after a long illness in her apartment in the Stanhope Hotel in Manhattan. In sharp contrast with Katherine Blake’s half century or her husband’s sixty-four year life’s-span, she was ninety-five-years old.
Following the loss of over one hundred acres along New York Sound
Favorably positioned, close to New York, might Harbor Hill to have been rescued, re-purposed and saved, successfully serving as a regional art museum, as a resort, a spa, a school or a catering hall? For many, the answer to such a question, pitting crude commerce and an exquisitely realized and irreplaceable architectural expression of distinctive beauty, the answer must be: ‘Yes!’ For those, this has been, one trusts, a multi-layered cautionary tale, And it is one, hardly discounting commercial expedience, but rather instead, considers every kind of cost and loss at stake.
2007: 'Country Estates'
HARBOR HILL, THE LOST END OF THE RAINBOW!