The Rise and Fall of the Stotesburys – New York Social Diary

Monday, March 6, 2023. Snowless, sometimes sunny weekend in New York with the temps touching the mid-50s in the day to the mid-30s at night. Particularly quiet in my neck of the woods. Although I don’t doubt that downtown, from SoHo south, the joint was jumpin’. A much younger crowd. Even the older ones are much younger downtown.
Uptown or down, all of it adds up to “that great big town.” New York is the mecca. I say that also with the experience of also having lived in another 20th century version of mecca — Los Angeles. New York is the magnet for curiosity, ambition, creativity, enterprise and speculation, the vitamins needed for Getting Ahead or even pursuing Your Dream, or mainly Good Luck.
My daily reading from the press is now entirely online. The two subjects that I pursue to draw my interest are The Financials and The Politicals. Those are the two main elements of our civilization because they directly reflect our ability to co-exist peaceably as creatures.
The rich ones have been part of my curiosity from the time I was a kid and had a rich uncle who read the Wall Street Journal everyday. Coming from the house of a poor father, I was an early reader looking to avoid that rap in life. It’s an everyday ordinary challenge for most, if not all of us.
Discussing the matter with JH he was reminded of the story I wrote about Lucretia and Edward Stotesbury, a second marriage for both, and at an advanced age. But they were an unlikely team. Mr. S. was something of a financial genius (late 19th/early 20th century). Mrs. had been a young widow, a woman of society now without a husband to keep a roof over her head. Their meeting was a stroke of good luck for both. And they celebrated it high, wide, and handsome. Until the inevitability of fate showed up at the door. Read on …
Lucretia Roberts Cromwell Stotesbury and Edward Townsend Stotesbury were about age 60 and 76, respectively in this picture which looks to have been taken at their famous house outside Philadelphia, Whitemarsh Hall.
They had been married by then for about twelve or thirteen years, and living in their palace (during the Spring and Fall) for about six months.
Theirs was a September/November marriage. They met at a crucial time in both their lives — on a steamship bound for Europe in January of 1910. Only a month before her first husband of twenty years, Oliver Cromwell (a descendant of the English Cromwell), with whom she had two sons and a daughter, died at 61 of a stroke in late 1909.
The Cromwells were a popular couple in society. She was born in 1865, brought up in Chicago where her father was a prominent lawyer. They met in Albuquerque. They married in 1889 and moved to New York where they were members of the younger group at the end of the era of the Mrs. Astor who sponsored them. Mr. Cromwell speculated on the stock market with his inheritance. And mainly lost. They moved to Washington where life was quieter and away from the excitement of New York.
A widow at 46, there were initial reports that Eva had been left rich — three houses, a large fortune. Wrong. It was one house and not an ample fortune. Then the rumors went to “penniless.” Also false, but close enough that Eva had to think seriously about her own future with her children growing up, especially her youngest, a handsome son, John Oliver Cromwell.
That was probably why one month after her husband died, Eva Cromwell shed her widow’s weeds and took her daughter Louise to Paris for her to debut rather than mourn. Edith Wharton was well aware of Eva Cromwell.
It was on that quietly anxious voyage that the now middle-aged but still attractive widow (by the standards of the era), through a mutual friend (a man named Eldridge) was introduced to a 60-year-old banker-widower from Philadelphia named Edward Stotesbury. That was it. They clicked. Mr. Stotesbury was “enchanted.”
“A Philadelphia banker” is now an archaic term that was commonplace in most of the 20th century and the century before. Philadelphia had been the city of our Founding Fathers. It was the financial center of the Colonies and the very young republic. It was then the gateway to the west and so, it was the center of trade nationally and internationally. It remained that way until 1825 when DeWitt Clinton’s Erie Canal really opened up access to the newly settling Midwest. That’s when New York with its excellent harbor suddenly became the focal point.
Edward Stotesbury was born in Philadelphia in 1849. His father was Episcopalian and his mother was a Quaker. The boy, one of four children, was brought up Quaker. His father was prosperous and when the boy was 17, he got him a job working in the office of Anthony J. Drexel whose firm Drexel & Company was started earlier in the 19th century by his father Frances Drexel.

The boy started out sweeping floors, tending the fire, a go-fer is what he might be called today. He was a good worker. He was graced with self-discipline. Looking at this life, it is easy to see that this natural state of discipline with the man was his strong card. He paid attention. He contemplated. He acted. He succeeded. He was decisive. And was smart. AJ Drexel noticed. He was promoted.
Although: it has been reported that “he never read a book,” and that he thought “Franklin Roosevelt was Robespierre.
He was a small man of delicate frame, although his height was ordinary for that time. “The diligent hand makes rich,” was the aphorism of the founder of the state of Pennsylvania, the Quaker leader Sir William Penn. Ned Stotesbury followed the dictum.
He was steadily promoted over the next decade and a half. There is a telling folktale about him in business at that time. At one point in his early career, Anthony J. Drexel’s daughter married Edward Biddle of the prominent banking family. He was given $150,000 (several million in today’s currency) and a partnership. Biddle had joined his father-in-law. One day the young son-in-law complained to father-in-law that “Your clerk has insulted me. Either he or I must go.” What clerk, the father-in-law wanted to know. “Stotesbury.” “Then you better go,” the father-in-law replied. And he did.
When he was 23 Drexel forged a partnership with Pierpont Morgan in New York. Drexel Morgan was formed. It was affiliated with J.S. Morgan (JP’s father) in London, with Morgan Harjes in Paris, etc. When he 34 he was made a partner of Drexel & Company. When he was 44, Anthony J. Drexel died and Stotesbury became resident senior partner or chief executive of Drexel & Company, a position he held for the rest of his long life. J. Pierpont Morgan removed the name from his firm and took over his father’s firm in London. Edward Stotesbury was one of the original partners in the new Morgan bank.
His life was his work. He had married, had two children and then his wife died in still in her thirties, leaving him a single father. In his excellent history, “The Twilight of Splendor James Maher quotes Balzac in describing the essence of Edward Stotesbury: “lynx-natured, thin-lipped, keen-eyed, hard-favored.” Maher further describes: “He was brisk in manner and speech, an unemotional little man, and vain. Pardonably so.”
It was once written in the Philadelphia Bulletin, that he was “somewhat distant and reserved to those who did not enjoy his confidence and friendship. To those who did, however, he was genial and sunny … a keen, well-versed conversationalist, and an appreciative listener.”
When the Panic of 1907 occurred and J.P. Morgan was formulating his line of strategy of gathering the bankers around him to take control of the situation, he took the train to Philadelphia to dine with Stotesbury, then 58 (Morgan was 70), to discuss the matter. Morgan is quoted as saying that the man knew “more about the details of banking than any other man in the United States.”
The ’07 Panic did not eclipse Stotesbury’s financial fortunes. In 1909, he was engaged with an international consortium in arranging a loan for China. This gained him a reputation with European bankers. It was the same year that his daughter married and his children had grown up and moved away. He led an active life as a young widower, entertaining Presidents and opera stars and international financial figures at his big townhouse off Rittenhouse Square. He also worked daily, belonged to copious clubs, engaged in community cultural activities and bred trotters which he kept on a farm outside the city, he nevertheless was lonely.
The meeting shipboard with the youthful widow Cromwell was just what the doctor (with fountain of youth in his prescription) ordered.
By now Stotesbury was a very rich man. In 1912, two years after their meeting, he married Eva Cromwell. Before the marriage, he engaged architects and designers to turn a building next door into a ballroom and redesign parts of the house. By then he was already a client of Joseph Duveen, the British antiquaire/art dealer who was a guiding light to many of America’s now great art and museum collections. By the time he met Eva, he possessed what was regarded as one of the top three collections of 18th century European portraiture, rivaling only Frick and Huntington.
His “taste” was an educated one, acquired with the same self-discipline that made him a master of banking detail.
Whatever the dialogue between the newlyweds Stotesbury, it basically opened a door to an architecturally-defined odyssey that marked the rest of their lives.
The Walnut Street renovations led eventually to a place in the country which eventually led to a summer place in Bar Harbor and winter place in Palm Beach. All intimately planned and all enormous.
Eva Stotesbury became a builder. Her husband became her willing and able co-partner in this venture which turned their lives into what appeared to be a long-running banquet lived out in palaces fit for a king. And Queen. American, that is. Henry Ford, the industrial giant in Stotesbury’s era, once commented after visiting Whitemarsh Hall: “It’s a great experience to see how the rich live.” Another expert in the decorative arts, the real snobs when it comes to taste, remarked after studying photographs of the house’s interiors, remarked: “I will tell you what it is, what style. It is pure twentieth century American rich. And it is perfectly beautiful.”

Horace Trumbauer
 was hired. Stotesbury purchased 300 acres near his horse farm in suburban Wyndmoor. The idea was Georgian. Trumbauer with much consultation with his client Mrs. Stotesbury, came up with a structure with a main block 283 feet wide, 100 feet deep with a service wing of 83 feet by 33 feet. The house would have 147 rooms with more than 100,000 square feet of floor space, 20 bathrooms, 24 fireplaces, five staircases, three elevators with access to six different levels (three below, three above), a movie theater, pipe organ, barber shop and billiard room. And Mrs. S. supervised. Mr. Trumbauer had the finesse to accommodate her almost without the slightest glitch.
They broke ground in October 1916. The First World War interfered with progress on the interiors, much of which was coming from England and France. It was three years after the Armistice of 1918 that the couple officially opened their house. Five years in the making. On that day there was a gala reception for 800 guests. The following year when the former premier of France, George Clemenceau visited, he found the view of the parc anglais reminiscent of Versailles. Not accidental.
She and her man had come together in the age of monument building that foresaw the development of what is known (at least to Americans) as the American Century. The architects who were also the designers/coordinators/artists/interior decorators were an integral industry to the financial prosperity. They were its expressors, so to speak. They didn’t so much encourage their clients to build their marble halls as to guide them on their quests.
Men like Joe Duveen used his charm and wily ways to persuade these (mostly) men to buy, buy, buy 18th century, 17th century and 19th century art to fill their palaces. Treasures, many of which now belong to the national heritage.
The Stotesburys occupied their new home in the Spring and Autumn. A staff of 70 maintained the estate and its inhabitants. It is estimated that in the 18 years that they lived there, until his death in 1938 at age 89, the Stotesburys had entertained 100,000 individuals at their houses in Palm Beach, Bar Harbor and Whitemarsh Hall.
Eva Stotesbury ran the place the way an executive runs a bank efficiently. Everything was accounted for and completed. Nothing was left unmanaged. “She ran her household with more efficiency than any factory I was ever in,” according to her son John. (John Cromwell grew up to marry Dodge Motor heiress Delphone Dodge and later Doris Duke. Both marriages ended in divorce. Eva’s daughter Louise married the young General-to-be Douglas MacArthur as a first husband.)
The world came to their door and as the 1920s rolled on jubilantly, the parties were varied and frequent and the Stotesburys loved their lives living it up. When the Great Crash occurred in 1929, the lifestyle was hardly curtailed. Mr. Stotesbury built a sixth yacht, “to help the boat builders.”
However, in 1932, a local radio personality named Boake Carter suggested that somebody go out to plant a bomb at Whitemarsh Hall. Edward Stotesbury, then 84 years old, became seriously concerned about “unruly” mobs on his majestic doorstep. He closed the house that spring. Four Thompson submachine guns were installed.
By the fall of 1933 the Great Depression was beginning to take hold of the entire nation including the Stotesburys. Whitemarsh Hall cost about a million a year to run. Cutbacks in many forms took place, including the entertaining. When Edward Stotesbury died five years later in 1938, he left his widow an estate shockingly depleted. The man who was making $5.5 million a year (about $200 million in today’s currency) in 1919 with an estate estimated at $100 million (or more than $3 billion annual in today’s dollars), had dwindled to $4 million.
The belt tightening began. It was a hard time for all Americans and there wasn’t much sympathy for the gargantuan decline of the fortunes of Eva Stotesbury. The art was sold off, the antiques, the real estate and finally in 1944, Whitemarsh Hall was sold and Eva returned to Washington to a rented house. She was 79 years old. Two years later she died.
What was that Great Fall like for the golden couple in their golden age? It might have been very difficult to take, but then they were a golden couple who obviously liked each other, and miraculously saw the best of it for themselves in the latter part of their lives rather than in their youth. This was quite unusual especially for that age.
The land was sold and re-sold from 1943 to 1969. During the Second World War its basement served as a storage for collections from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It became a research laboratory for Pennwalt Corporation. Then it went through a series of transfers of ownership until it became a ghost, ready for the vandals. And the vandals, like the locusts, came. Its brilliance gone with the wind.


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