Sunday, May 4, 2014

125. Remarkable Women: Eliza Jumel

     This post is the first of two or more about remarkable women who lived for a significant part of their life in New York City.  The Morris-Jumel mansion mentioned below is the oldest house in Manhattan and well worth a visit.

     Eliza Jumel (1775-1865) was an unusual woman for many reasons, but to get at the truth of her earlier years is a challenge, since she wove many myths about herself.  She claimed to have been born of an aristocratic English mother, a Mrs. Capet, in the cabin of a French frigate en route to the West Indies, whose captain, when the mother died in childbirth, delivered the infant into the care of an elderly lady named Thompson in Newport, Rhode Island, where she was raised in humble but respectable circumstances. 

     Another version has her born in a poorhouse in Providence, Rhode Island, and adopted by a Mr. Bowen, whose name she bore.  At age seventeen, yet another story goes, she eloped to New York with a British officer, a Colonel Peter Croix and, being beautiful and charming, was accepted into the society of the time, made the acquaintance of Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, and witnessed both the first session of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and Washington’s inauguration as president.  All of which is bosh.  If she witnessed the first session of the Congress, she must have done it from the womb.  And if she met any of the Founding Fathers, she would have been a babbling infant. There are as many accounts of her origins as there were early biographers, and not one of them can be trusted.

     The most commonly accepted account today has her born in Providence in 1775 to Phebe Kelley Bowen, a prostitute, and her sailor lover who died at sea.  How she spent her childhood isn’t clear; she may have been taken in by local families or been raised in a poorhouse.  She is even said to have worked as a cleaning girl – but not as a prostitute -- in the brothel where her mother worked, and subsequently may have turned to prostitution herself.  Certainly it was a rough childhood, and one with meager promise.  Little wonder that she later invented a tale about a birth on the high seas to an aristocratic mother who then conveniently died.  And little wonder too that she became obsessed with acquiring social status and wealth.

     In time Eliza Bowen made her way to New York, perhaps because a prominent citizen of Providence, fearing exposure of their liaison, paid her to leave town.  In New York she became an actress and in time a kept woman, neither profession likely to win entrée into polite society.  But she was beautiful, and if she lacked formal education she enjoyed a keen native intelligence and therefore aimed high. 

     In 1804, at age twenty-nine, she married Stephen Jumel, after having lived with him first.  Jumel was a wealthy French wine merchant and ship owner of about fifty, originally from a merchant family in Bordeaux, who had made a fortune in cotton, sugar, coffee, and indigo in the French colony of Haiti, before fleeing the 1791 slave revolt there and coming to New York, where he made a new fortune and became the city’s leading merchant in wines, brandies, cordials, and gins.  He may have been tricked into the marriage.  The story is told that he returned from an absence to find his mistress on her deathbed and desirous of marriage so she could go to heaven a somewhat honest woman.  Grief-stricken, Jumel agreed and a civil marriage was performed, following which his new wife recovered amazingly.  As a good Catholic, Jumel then had a second marriage performed in the Catholic cathedral of the time.

     Now that she had the means, the new Madame Jumel surely dressed in the height 
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The Empire style dress of the early 1800s.
Not Madame Jumel; I have had no access
to any image of her in her youth.
of fashion, which meant the high-waisted gowns made fashionable by the Empress Josephine in France, since New York society was quick to follow the latest Parisian styles.   And thanks to her husband, she had a fine carriage to parade about in.  But wealth and fine clothes and a carriage didn’t mean that Eliza Jumel was accepted by society.  The city was still small enough for everyone to know, or know of, everyone else, their family and the source of their wealth.  Even if she hadn’t been an actress or a kept woman, Eliza Bowen was an unknown, her background questionable.  That Stephen Jumel married her anyway was her great good luck.

     In 1810 Jumel bought what would then become known as the Jumel mansion in Upper Manhattan.  He and his wife then remodeled and completely refurnished the house, a handsome Georgian-style residence  built in 1765 by a British officer, Colonel Roger Morris, as a summer villa eleven miles north of the city.  At the outbreak of the Revolution the colonel and his wife, being loyal to the Crown, fled the city, and George Washington made it his headquarters in 1776, before abandoning the city to the British.  After the war the vast Morris estate was  confiscated and became farmland, and the house, briefly, a tavern.  When Jumel acquired it, it was still far north of the settled part of Manhattan, a 65-acre rural retreat on high ground affording a fine view to the east of the Harlem River, and to the west of the Hudson and New Jersey.  There, amid elegant French Empire furnishings, both he and his wife would live much of the rest of their lives, and with them a niece of hers (some say an illegitimate daughter) whom they adopted at an early age.

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Elisa Rolle

     In 1815 – whether before or after Waterloo is unclear – the Jumels and their adopted daughter sailed on one of his ships to Bordeaux, because the husband wanted to visit relatives there.  Stephen Jumel was an enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon, and it is even said that when the Emperor suffered his final defeat at Waterloo, the Jumels offered him safe passage to America, an offer he chose to decline.  Though the Jumels went on to Paris, stories of Eliza's dazzling the imperial court are not to be trusted, since the Emperor was on his way out when they arrived in Paris, nor would she, as a Bonaparte sympathizer, have been welcome in the court of the restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII.  But she may well have muted her Bonaparte sympathies so as to make inroads into Restoration society -- the society described so vividly by Balzac -- and seems to have indeed made the acquaintance of some of the French nobility, whether Bonapartist or otherwise, and from them perhaps received some Napoleonic mementos.  The story that Louis XVIII expelled her from France because of her political opinions seems doubtful, since if he expelled the wife, why not the husband too?  It could well have been a quarrel with her husband that sent her back to America alone.

     Eliza Jumel returned to New York in 1817, but her husband and daughter remained in France, the daughter being in boarding school there.  The daughter later returned, but in 1821 she and Eliza Jumel went back to Paris and stayed for several years, renewing the mother's contact with the French nobility, before returning in 1826, at which time Eliza Jumel was armed with a power of attorney allowing her to manage Stephen Jumel’s affairs in New York; he evidently planned to remain in France and wanted her to sell his property and rejoin him in France, which she failed to do.  When Stephen Jumel returned to New York in 1828, he was shocked to learn  that his wife had deprived him of all his property by conveying it to a trustee, but they reached a settlement whereby they would all live together in the mansion until he died, his wife being his heir, with the adopted daughter to inherit at Eliza Jumel’s death.

     While in France Eliza Jumel had certainly become fluent in French and acquired polished manners, a veneer of sophistication, and a renewed interest in Empire-style furnishings.  Back in America, she reestablished herself in the mansion and furnished it with bric-a-brac, laces, and fine furniture that she had bought in Paris.  In the years that followed she and her husband are said to have entertained lavishly, their guests including Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor’s older brother and former king of Spain, who established himself for many years on a large estate in New Jersey, and Louis Napoleon, the future Emperor Napoleon III, who came to this country for a brief visit in 1836.  The Bonaparte clan obviously did not share New York society’s suspicion of Madame Jumel.

     The Jumel mansion is now open to the public and I visited it recently.  A frame structure that has miraculously escaped the ravages of fire, it is still surrounded by ample high grounds shaded by maples and elms.  Its façade features an imposing portico with four columns topped by a triangular pediment, and most of the interior is furnished in French Empire style, with discreet carving and gilding, a style that strikes me as light, elegant, and modern, as opposed to the heavier, overstuffed furnishings of the Victorian age. 

     In her early years in the house, one can well imagine the hostess, in a high-waisted, low-necked Empire gown, her arms bare, her throat adorned with a string of pearls, gliding down the ample entrance hall to receive arriving guests and wave them into the octagonal drawing room in back.  The gilded eagles topping the wide, arched doorways of the hall would have warmed the heart of any Bonaparte or Bonaparte supporter, since Napoleon’s armies went into battle with standards topped by a gilded eagle, an emblem so closely identified with the Emperor that Louis XVIII  ordered their destruction.

The front hall, looking toward the drawing room in back.
Gilded eagles over the doorways.
     Or we can imagine Madame, now in the ampler gown fashionable by the 1830s, chatting with an ex-king or future emperor in the formal front parlor before the large fireplace, its mantel adorned with candles and an ornamental clock, under the massive crystal chandelier.  Or waving guests into the dining room across the hall, which today is set with six settings for dessert, with chinaware and sparkling glasses.  Or imagine her pointing out to guests a set of chairs that, she assured them, had once belonged to the First Consul, or a clock from the Tuileries, or tapestries and paintings once collected by the Empress Josephine, or a stand that had belonged to Voltaire, or furniture once owned by Charles X, the last of the Bourbons to rule – some of which may even have been true.  She is also said to have displayed furniture emblazoned with the imperial “N,” though on my visit I saw no trace of it.  She obviously went to great lengths to embellish her own existence with links, some dubious and some perhaps authentic, to monarchy and the great.

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The front parlor.

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The dining room.
Elisa Rolle
     Or we can imagine Madame getting herself elegantly together in her dressing room on the second floor, adjoining her Empire-style bedchamber with its soothing green wallpaper, curtains, and upholstery, and handsome bed (too short for us today) backed by a sumptuous gold hanging with, significantly, another gilded eagle at the top.  Some of the bedchamber’s furnishings are said to have been acquired in Paris and shipped here, though the claim that the bed itself, eagle and all, was once the Empress Josephine’s might be met with caution.  But there is no doubt that the prostitute’s daughter had come a long way; she lived and slept in style.  Yet in the house I saw no room that could be called a library, no study with book-lined shelves.

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Her bedchamber.
Elisa Rolle

     In those days rustic grandeur had its limits.  How was the house heated and lighted, how did they bathe, and how were their bodily needs attended to?  In the city to the south, gaslight was installed in the 1820s and 1830s, but this required an unsightly, smelly gas works over near the East River or the Hudson, which in the countryside was out of the question.  So Madame Jumel’s mansion was lit with whale oil lamps and candles, and heated in every room by a fireplace where wood crackled and sparks danced in the air, to be supplanted later by the steady, warm glow of coal. 

     And water?  While the city, as of 1842, had the Croton water, and affluent middle-class households, by paying a water tax, had running water for cooking and flushing and bathing, country residences lacked such amenities.  Somewhere in the Jumel mansion – though nowhere indicated during my visit -- there must have been cubbyholes or closets where the residents could relieve themselves discreetly, and water for cooking and bathing must have come from a well in the neighborhood, though during my visit I neither saw such a well nor heard of one.  All of which implies an army of servants not just to clean the rooms and cook the food, and tote the food from the basement kitchen upstairs to the dining room (I saw no dumbwaiter either), but also to fetch wood and coal and water, and to tend the grounds as well.  They would have been lodged in the basement, out of sight of the masters, on condition that they appear upstairs whenever needed, which, one suspects, was rather often.  Yes, rustic grandeur had its limits.  And yet, secure in her mansion on a breezy eminence well removed from the city, Madame was not exposed to the annual summer outbreaks of yellow fever that plagued the lower wards of the city, or the cholera epidemic that struck in the summer of 1832.

     On May 22, 1832, shortly before the cholera epidemic, Stephen Jumel was thrown from his carriage (though some sources say a hay wagon) and incurred injuries that proved fatal; being Catholic, he was buried in the churchyard of the old Saint Patrick's Cathedral on Mulberry Street near Prince.  It is said that their spousal affection had long since withered, and rumors circulated that she had let him bleed to death, but this too should probably be dismissed as myth.  What is certain is that within a year the widow married Aaron Burr, infamous for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel many long years before.

File:Aaron Burr.jpg     Burr had returned to the city and resumed his law practice, and was known to be especially versed in the law regarding real estate.  Madame Jumel, who had evidently known him briefly long before, went to his office in Nassau Street to consult him on such a matter, and he received her graciously, paid close heed to all she said, and then conducted her to her carriage in princely style.  Soon afterward Burr took on as a student Nelson Chase, the young husband of Madame Jumel’s niece and adopted daughter, who now lived in the mansion with her and his wife.  Burr assured the young man that he would learn more from him in one year than he could learn elsewhere in ten, and so it came about.  Chase praised Burr to the skies and persuaded his mother-in-law to invite Burr to dinner.  When she did, her courtly guest led her in to dinner, remarking, “Madame, I give you my hand; my heart has long been yours.”  After that he called on her often and proposed, only to be turned down.

     Always attractive to women, well-mannered, and deft with compliments, the elderly Burr was not one to give up easily.  Finally, on July 1, 1833, he showed up at the mansion with a clergyman and proposed again, with her niece and young Chase pleading in his favor.  Feeling lonely in her spacious mansion, and seeing the advantage of a husband capable of managing her affairs, after further hesitation the widow agreed, and quickly donned an appropriate gown.  The ceremony was performed in the formal front parlor with only her relations present, while the eight servants peered in from the doorway.  She was 58, and he an alert and vigorous 77.  A merry supper followed, gladdened by some vintage bottles from Stephen Jumel’s wine cellar.  The new husband moved in and was given a handsome bedroom across the hall from hers, where the visitor today may see furnishings typical of the 1830s, including a canopied four-poster and bright red curtains and bedding, the bold color contrasting sharply with the gentle green of her room and therefore singularly appropriate.  (The room was once designated Lafayette’s bedroom, but no more, and it’s just as well; Lafayette visited the U.S. in 1824-25, but at that time the Jumels were still in Paris.)

The Aaron Burr bedroom.

     There is little doubt that Burr married her for money, and she may have seen in the marriage a way to climb a bit higher socially.  But while Burr was knowledgeable about New York real estate, he was less adept when it came to investing elsewhere, and lost a good hunk of her money in a land speculation in Texas.  A certain coolness then settled in between them, with arguments, an attempt at reconciliation, more bad investments and losses, and finally, on her part, a filing for divorce – no small matter, since in respectable society divorce was simply unheard of.  But Eliza Jumel had had enough and was determined to rescue her affairs from Burr’s mismanagement.  He moved out and she resumed the name of Jumel.  Having at first contested the divorce, he finally acquiesced in it.  The divorce became final on September 14, 1836, the very day when Burr, residing by then in a boarding house on Staten Island, died.  Ever eager to annex a bit of grandeur, after that Madame Jumel is said to have presented herself, when traveling, as “Mrs. Aaron Burr, widow of the Vice President of the United States.”  He was of more use to her dead than living.

     Her rejection by Knickerbocker society did not keep the widow Jumel from joining the annual exodus of New Yorkers north to Saratoga, where drawling planters and their wives fleeing the torrid heat of the South rubbed genteel elbows with the moneyed chivalry of Gotham.  At first she stayed in the sumptuous United States Hotel, the resort of New York’s wealthy, but in 1851 she bought a handsome Greek Revival house fronted by soaring square white columns on Circular Street and spent her summers there over the following years.  A stranger to modesty, she named her residence the Tuileries after the Parisian palace where she claimed to have stayed as a guest, and wore diamonds that had allegedly once belonged to the Empress Josephine.  But for all her obsessive social climbing, she was still a shrewd businesswoman and bought several farms in the area where she grew vegetables for the Saratoga hotel and restaurant trade.    

     Her annual treks to and from Saratoga in a bright yellow carriage drawn by four horses along the Albany Post Road are said to have become a tradition that drew crowds to the roadside to watch.  I find it questionable, though, that she would have subjected herself and a carriage meant for gentle urban usage to the rigors of a long trip over an unpaved, bumpy road, when the preferred way to get to Saratoga was by steamboat to Albany and then a short trip there by stage.

     But while in Saratoga she certainly paraded about in the carriage, to the bedazzlement of some and the annoyance of others.  It was no small achievement that she made it a tradition that the afternoon parade of carriages out to Saratoga Lake and back, a pageant much noted and observed, should be led by none other than herself in that same blatantly yellow carriage, during which she bowed and waved to the crowds with an ostrich-feather fan in a gesture of noblesse oblige.  In democratic America this could not go unchallenged.  One day during the procession, being greeted with smirks and laughter, she finally looked back and discovered that following behind her was just a single carriage, and in it a black man in female garb mimicking her regal gestures to the crowd, a farcical performance that continued all the way to the lake and back.  Her mimic could not have acted alone; one suspects a conspiracy by respectables to put the upstart in her place.  When she entered her carriage the next day, it is said, she deposited a pair of pistols on the seat beside her.

Eliza Jumel and her grandchildren.   A painting of 1854.

     Eliza Jumel continued to live in her New York mansion with her niece and Nelson Chase, and in time with their two children, though she seems also to have lived at times in the city.  In 1852, at age 77, she made a visit to Paris, where Louis Napoleon, now President of the Republic but not quite Emperor yet, gave a ball where she entered on the arm of Jerome Bonaparte, yet another of that clan of ex-kings.  Mindful of her kindnesses to him in former years, the President extended many courtesies to her.  Two years later she took her two grandchildren on a grand tour of Europe, during which their portrait was painted in Rome; how she was received in Paris, where Louis Napoleon now reigned as Napoleon III, seems not to be recorded.  Back home in her mansion, she is said to have lived quietly, having a small circle of friends and not desiring to have any more.  But there are also stories of eccentricity and maybe even insanity in her last years, with her seated on a thronelike dais in the drawing room and receiving all manner of distinguished imaginary guests.  She died in the mansion in 1865, at the age of 90, and was buried not with her husband, as is sometimes stated, but in a vault in Trinity Church Cemetery in Upper Manhattan.  Following her death a George W. Bowen surfaced who claimed to be her illegitimate son, born of an early liaison in Providence, and therefore the heir to her estate.  After a long battle in the courts his claim was denied, and Nelson Chase, now a widower, and his two children inherited most of her estate.

Eliza <i>Bowen</i> Jumel
Her vault in Trinity Church Cemetery.

     Such was the life of Eliza Bowen Jumel, insofar as I have been able to reconstruct it, a life so encrusted with legend, some of her own creation and some concocted by others, that you have to chip and poke and pry so as to get down to a small hard core of facts.  What is certain is that she married Stephen Jumel and went to France; that New York society viewed her with suspicion; that she owned considerable real estate in New York and Saratoga; that as a widow she married Aaron Burr and then divorced him; and that she refurnished her mansion and lived in it until her death there in 1865.  Beyond these solid facts one has to move with caution. 

     Assuming that my account is basically accurate, what can one conclude?  The prostitute’s daughter had indeed come a very long way.  To have presided over a handsome old house with a team of servants on a breezy eminence; to have embellished that house with splendid Empire décor, and slept in a bed of allegedly imperial provenance; to have managed her affairs with competence and shrewdness; and to have hobnobbed with ex-kings and a future emperor – all this, in the face of rejection by polite society, was no small achievement.  Feminists embrace her today, myths and all.  She had serious flaws, but yes, she was a remarkable woman.

     On silence and trees:  Followers of this blog know how I value silence (post #55) and trees (#71).  The tree of the moment is the redbud.  If in a park you see a small tree with red buds, or those buds opening into tiny pink flowers that line every branch and twig with hardly a leaf in sight, that surely is a redbud.  Not every park has redbuds, but the little park across the street from my apartment building at the corner of Bleecker Street and West 11th has no less than five.  Once the flowers are gone and only the leaves remain, the redbud will simply be another nice little tree, nothing more.  So enjoy it now in all its vernal splendor.

     Visitors from suburban or rural areas may wonder what New Yorkers know about silence, but we prize it precisely because we have so little of it.  I have just learned of the closing of Mount Manresa, a 15-acre Jesuit retreat center on Staten Island that residents of the neighborhood, both Catholic and non-Catholic, valued for many years as a refuge from the workaday world and a place of meditation and prayer.  A year ago, when the New York Province of the Society of Jesus announced that, because of declining retreat activity, it was selling the property for $15 million to a developer who planned to build 250 townhouses on the site, the neighbors fought hard to block the sale through litigation.  They failed, and the wreckers came during Easter week and in three days felled scores of trees, including a black tupelo thought to be 400 years old.  Witnessing this destruction, the protesters screamed and wept; for them, the ground was sacred.  Though I have often hiked on Staten Island, I never visited Mount Manresa or even knew of it, but I join the protesters in mourning its loss.  It had both trees and silence; for me too, the ground was sacred.

This is New York

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David Shankbone

     Coming soon:  More famous deaths, featuring Pepsi-Cola, a loathing of sugar, and “I vant to be alone”; and a post on ethnic New York: Sherpas, Basques, Gypsies, and Sikhs, with a quick glance at Uzbeks and Tatars.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder


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