High Style in the Gilded Age: Caroline Helen Parrish Brown
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
If you missed my talk on Caroline Helen Parrish Brown you can watch the recording below. Or keep scrolling and you can view all the images from the slideshow and read my notes about each one.
Caroline Helen Parrish Brown (1882 - 1932) - The Favorite
Caroline (always called Helen) Parrish is born in October, 1882, in Paris, the only daughter of James Cresson Parrish and Emma Thorn Parrish. With loving parents, who also happen to be very rich, well-connected and culturally enlightened, Helen enters the world with every advantage to grow into her role as Southampton’s golden girl of the Gilded Age. Helen’s father, Samuel Parrish’s less known but richer brother, was making his home in Paris at the time, acquiring his fortune representing European investors in American railroads during the frenzied era of railroad reorganizations. Fluent in French and a connoisseur of continental arts and culture, he is a doting father to Helen and her younger brother, James Jr.
Emma Thorn Parrish (left) | Grandfather Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt at Home (right)
The marriage of Helen’s parents in January 1882 is his first and her second. Not much is known about her previous life as Mrs. Edward King except that she had a daughter and was widowed in 1873. What is known is that her grandfather was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and that she shares James’s social and cultural interests. They soon settle in New York City in a house on 26th Street and become popular members of New York society. There, Helen, along with James Jr., enjoys the carefree days of a privileged child until 1887 when her mother dies at the heartbreaking age of 41.
Helen is just five when her mother dies, a wrenching and baffling loss for a child, but she is never to feel unloved. She is the apple of her father’s eye and he is the father of any child’s dreams--a man who loves life, seemingly hard-wired for happiness, and full of fun. Never tied to a desk, he is able to devote much of his time to pleasure--and to his children--while keeping a close eye on the market as an extremely shrewd investor. Even when his affairs take him away from home, he remembers to send Helen a birthday telegram.
Until her death in 1895, Helen’s grandmother, Sarah Redwood Parrish, is another fount of love and attention. In the 1880s, the Parrish family gravitates toward Southampton in the summer, first renting and then acquiring some of the most beautiful dwellings in all of the Hamptons. In 1889, James and his brother Samuel ask their friend Stanford White to design a house for their mother. The result is “White Fence,” which survives on First Neck Lane and where Helen and James Jr. bask in the warmth of their grandmother’s affection. While Sarah Redwood Parrish has a reputation in Southampton as a rigorous guardian of Old School etiquette, she surely makes some exceptions for her grandchildren.
The childless Samuel Longstreth Parrish cherishes Helen as a favorite niece. By the time he adds the beautiful Rogers Mansion to the growing list of family mansions in 1899, Helen is no longer a child. At 17, she is popular, gracious and often at her uncle’s side when he entertains. The 1843 Greek Revival mansion--now the home of the Southampton History Museum--will be moved back from its original location on Main Street and expanded before Samuel has finished with it, but it will remain a family gathering place throughout.
After golf comes to Southampton in the 1890s, introduced by her uncle Sam Parrish, Duncan Cryder and their friend Edward Mead, the young Helen catches the bug. With encouragement from her father and uncle--zealous players known to have played in the snow--she hones her skills at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club where a small loop of nine holes north of the clubhouse is reserved for the women. She becomes an excellent golfer--good enough to give her father a run, despite the extravagant Gilded Age garb women are expected to wear on the links.
Young, lively and single toward the turn of the 20th century, Helen is known to stray a bit from her grandmother’s ideal of conventional female behavior--though certainly it causes no distress in her pleasure-loving father. Through the efforts of her Uncle Sam Parrish, among others, William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art opens in 1891, drawing art students to Southampton where an enclave of cottages known as the Art Village offers rental accommodations.
Map of the Art Village (1903) | List of cottages in the Art Village
As a prime mover in establishing the school, Samuel Parrish is also a prime investor in Art Village property, and Helen benefits. She is able to occupy the charming cottage called “Honeysuckles” and to join the revels of the aspiring artists--fashionable bohemians who are her neighbors. Rumors circulate about scandalous parties at the Art Village and many locals, suspecting orgies, would like to see the place closed down. The rumors are exaggerated and the school survives until 1902, a shielded enclave safe from philistine outsiders.
In 1902, Helen joins her father and brother in Austria. James Sr. is showing his 19-year-old son his old haunts in Europe, staying at the best hotels and eating in the finest restaurants. Later he writes beautifully about the trip, doubly enjoyed because his children are his companions. In a place called “Karer See, near Innsbruck he writes of “mountain walks, beneath the deep shade of the evergreens, leading to charming views, with here and there a rude seat for the weary...and after two nights, Jimmy having made the ascent of one of the peaks and Helen having made the acquaintance of the lovely little wife of a Viennese doctor, we thought our visit was over…”
A year later, on September 15, 1903, James Sr. escorts his daughter down the aisle at Saint Andrew’s Dune Church at her wedding to Archibald Manning Brown. Brown, who also had spent childhood summers in Southampton with his family, is a Harvard graduate with a future as a prominent architect. The Reverend Endicott Peabody, headmaster of Groton, performs the ceremony for which Helen has chosen a dress of white mousseline de soie trimmed with orange blossoms. She wears a lace veil and an opal and diamond pin, a gift from the bridegroom.
A reception, attended by a Who’s Who of Southampton society, is held at James Parrish’s beachfront home, Zee-en-Duin. Once located at the ocean end of First Neck Lane opposite the Meadow Club, it has not survived but has an interesting history. It did survive the 1938 hurricane and acquired the name some people might remember, “The Ark.” When so many of the Victorian “cottages” were crushed by the enormous surge of water that spilled over the beach, the windows for the staff, at the lowest level of the building, provided a passageway for the sea surge, knocking out the basement and staff quarters but leaving the entire dwelling standing, surrounded by water. It was later owned by the Bee Gees and became a celebrity hangout, famous for its star-studded volleyball games on the beach. The Bee Gees paid $300,000 for it and sold it to Woody Allen for $3 million in 1982. His was a brief stay since the sound of the surf made him nervous, and circa 2000, the house was destroyed by fire.
A few weeks after the wedding, Helen and Archibald head for Paris where Brown furthers his architectural studies at the Academie des Beaux Arts. On their return to the States, Archibald is soon a partner in the prestigious New York architectural firm, Peabody, Wilson and Brown, best known for its large country residences, many on Long Island’s Gold Coast. He designed some in Southampton as well, including “Ocean Castle,” and the J.W. Funk residence, “Cobble Court” on the dunes.
Married to a prosperous and prestigious architect and with a rich family life that eventually includes five children, Helen is busy and happy. She and Archibald spend winters in New York and part of the summer in Southampton where she remains a favorite with her uncles and aunts. In a gathering around the lily pool in the garden of Uncle Sam’s art museum circa 1905, she, Archibald, and their first child, Baby Helen, are surrounded by relatives, including Uncle Sam in a cap.
Southampton--and the presence of her father--continue to lure Helen to the village, even in winter. On a frigid day, Helen is observed braving the cold with her children to join James Sr. on the ice at Old Town Pond. A vigorous widower at the start of the new century, James has never remarried, though women adore him and seek him out as an escort. When he is not relishing his role as father and grandfather, he devotes himself to his passions for golf and ice skating.
Another impressive mansion in the long line of exquisite Parrish family dwellings is James Sr.’s vast, castle-like Heathermere in Shinnecock Hills. A full 300 feet long, with uncounted rooms, it is the grandest of all, but what James really appreciates is its location as close to the golf course as it can be without actually being on it. It is, in his later years, his summer headquarters and probably a sure lure for his daughter who can brush up her swing while visiting her father. (It has not survived.)
Around 1910, Archibald and Helen acquire East Farm in St. James on Stony Brook Harbor, a magnificent 30-acre property with an historic house and many outbuildings. East Farm began as a family homestead in 1689, with a farmhouse built in 1710, and outbuildings added over the years. When the news spreads of its acquisition by the hugely successful architect Archibald Brown, no one is surprised to see him get down to work on substantial additions and improvements, enlarging and remodeling the house to create a country home for the ages. (Much later, when the Browns no longer own it, his additions, considered inappropriate, are removed. Preservationists approve of their removal but are upset by other changes to the historic estate and in 1993 they succeed in placing it on the National Register of Historic Place to give it some protection.)
Helen receives frequent visits at East Farm from her father, who is, of course, extremely fond of his grandchildren. His 1916 diary, which is in the Southampton History Museum’s archives, has many references to his trips to Stony Brook, which is near enough for a pleasant drive from Southampton. “Motoring,” the term used for what was once a recreational activity, is one more way he finds to indulge his almost limitless capacity for enjoying the good things in life. On October 12, Helen gives birth to her fifth child and her father is on hand at East Farm to greet the new arrival. He writes in his diary, “Helen’s boy was born at 3 a.m. All goes well. Lucy [his grandchild] screamed it out to me from her bicycle before 8 a.m. as she and Helen and Archie [her siblings] came out for breakfast.”
James Cresson Parrish dies in July 1926 at the age of 86 in the favored way most people would prefer—in his bed at the Metropolitan Club, having played nine holes the day before his death and enjoyed some music after dinner. Helen and her brother are big beneficiaries. By the time the accountants have sorted through the securities and personal property of James Parrish’s estate two years later in 1928, an additional $317,000 has accumulated since his death for a total of nearly $7 million—testimony to his financial acumen and attention to his investments. In addition, Helen inherits Zee-en-Duin, while Heathermere goes to her brother.
In 1932, the Browns are about to establish another splendid residence in New York City when tragedy strikes. They are planning to move into a new duplex maisonette that opens directly onto the gardens at the city’s coveted River House complex. Furnished entirely in the Scandinavian modernist style—the height of fashion at the time—the apartment is ready at last for the Browns to move in when Helen dies at the age of 50. The New York Times reports her death of pneumonia at Heathermere in Southampton on June 28, following a two-month illness. “Mrs. Brown was 49 years old,” the account continues, and “had been identified in activities at Southampton all her life.” Helen is buried in the Parrish family plot at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia where her father is buried and where her Uncle Samuel Longstreth Parrish was interred just two months before Helen.
After the loss of his wife, a grieving Archibald finds it impossible to live in the apartment at River House and he never moves in. Two years later, he and the well-known interior designer Eleanor McMillan are married and he moves into her residence on 57th Street. The River House duplex is eventually owned by another summer Southamptonite, Mary Lea Johnson.