High Style in the Gilded Age: Frances Breese Miller



Frances Breese Miller lives a life in two acts. In the first, she is born into the mannered elegance of 19th-century wealth and privilege as the daughter of James Lawrence Breese and Frances Tileston Potter Breese. In the second, she will turn her back on its conventions to become a liberated woman of the 20th century. In her later years, in a three-volume memoir self-published between 1979 and 1981, she will record her passage from sheltered child and Junior League debutante to the artist and committed environmentalist she became.

James Lawrence Breese
Bishop Alonzo Potter

Hers is a fairy-tale childhood, but with a twist. It is obvious almost from the beginning that Tanty, as she is nicknamed, is her father’s daughter, a tomboy whose resistance to ladylike behavior he applauds. James Breese has a well-earned reputation as a bon vivant, his interests revolving around photography, automobiles and all things beautiful, including women. His best friend is Stanford White and, like the celebrated architect who is a partner in McKim, Mead and White, Breese enjoys the benefits conferred by his high rank in society as long as they do not interfere with his free-spirited pleasures. With his approval, Tanty adopts a similar attitude, never an openly rebellious child but finding pleasure nevertheless in activities deemed too robust for a young girl in Gilded Age society.

Bishop Henry Codman Potter

In 1880, James Breese had taken the conventional path in his marriage to Frances Potter, the product of a strict religious upbringing--an exceptionally poor match for a sensual man with bohemian tastes. Her own mother had died in childbirth, leaving little Fanny to be raised in a large two-bishop family. Her uncle Alonzo is the Episcopal Bishop of Pennsylvania and her uncle, Henry Codman Potter, the very influential seventh Bishop of New York.

Frances Tileston Potter Breese

Steeped in piety at home, Fanny is immersed in Victorian propriety at the English boarding school to which she is consigned at the age of eight. Tanty describes her mother as a noble woman, beautiful in the “grande dame” style, a good amateur pianist, skillful horsewoman and driver, gifted in flower arranging but lacking in warmth. Inevitably, the marriage of opposites is not a happy one, and Fanny suffers frequent emotional breakdowns. Conditioned to be inhibited, she is the outsider in a household comprised of an uninhibited husband, three boisterous sons and a tomboy daughter.

Box Hill
Bessie White

One of Tanty’s early childhood memories is of accompanying her mother on a visit to “Box Hill,” the Stanford Whites’ country home in St. James. Fanny Breese and Bessie White are close friends, comrades-in-arms in the struggles associated with wayward husbands. Tanty has her own reasons for enjoying the visits. She is charmed by Bessie’s warmth and vitality, but mostly she is fascinated by Bessie’s remarkable ability to whistle and sing a tune at the same time.

Invitation to a Stagfest

With husbands who have never accepted that marriage might require putting a stop to their bachelor carousing, Fanny and Bessie share a certain fortitude in facing their common fate. In 1895, it is put to the test when White and Breese host a supposedly secret stag party that is somehow leaked to the press. Under pretext of a celebration honoring John Elliot Cowdin, a silk factory titan, the gathering at Breese’s elaborate photography studio is attended by some 50 men, among them Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Charles Dana Gibson and Nicola Tesla.

Rabelaisian quantities of food and drink are consumed, climaxed by dessert in the form of a huge six-foot pastry out of which pops a flock of birds and a scantily clad underage girl. The press makes hay with this image of the affair, to be known ever after as the “Pie Girl Dinner.” And despite Charles Dana Gibson’s protestations that the event was “very moral and dignified,” it is blasted in the NY World as a particularly outrageous example of the fashionable crowd’s “bacchanalian revels.” Participants may be embarrassed by the public rebuke but the sting of humiliation is surely most deeply felt by their wives.