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High Style in the Gilded Age: Lily Barney

Updated: Jun 9, 2023


Lily Whitney Barney (1852-1946)

The Dedicated Socialite

A view from our exhibit space

Now, while the museum remains closed, I have been deepening my research into the women’s lives, preparing the 12 talks in the series, each of which focuses on one of them. Though they all lived lives of great privilege, what I found is that they were not necessarily happy, and that most were very hard workers--managing complex households, keeping up appearances, and rarely enjoying the personal freedoms granted their husbands in the seriously patriarchal society of the Gilded Age. My first talk was on Janette Ralston Chase Hoyt, who enlivened the early resort with her unconventional flair. Lily Barney is a very different type-- putting family and social standing above all else and dedicating her efforts to navigating the social seas. With a high-strung husband, two daughters to guide through Society’s rituals toward a suitable marriage, and a full calendar of A-list events, she is a social star, but stalked by tragedy.

Like her famous older brother, William Collins Whitney, who would become one of the richest and most powerful men in New York City, Lily is born in Massachusetts and probably spends most of her childhood years in the quaint New England town of Conway.

image of the Mayflower

Though the family does not have the vast fortune her brother will eventually acquire, the Whitneys are well off and Lily can boast a very proud lineage, her mother’s forebears having arrived on The Mayflower.

General James S. Whitney

Lily’s father, Gen. James S. Whitney, is for half a century a Democratic leader in Massachusetts and serves as Collector of the Port of Boston, a prime political plum, under President Buchanan. Little is known of Lily’s formative years but she no doubt receives instruction in the arts and skills that prepare a young upper-class female in the Gilded Age to make a suitable marriage.

Charles Barney

In this respect, Lily does not disappoint. With much going for her--not least her handsome and devoted brother--Lily stands out among her contemporaries on the marriage market. She soon attracts the interest of Charles T. Barney, the son of a successful Cleveland businessman who moved his family to New York City in 1857 to pursue his career at Wells Fargo and Company and is named president of the company in 1869. His son Charles, with his good looks, obvious drive, and precocious gift for finance, is expected to go far in the banking world. Lily is won over and she and Charles are wed shortly after his graduation from Williams College in 1870.

William Collins Whitney

In New York, Lily Barney is a serious contender among the city’s young matrons vying for social supremacy in the closed circle of the wealthy elite, where every social success--or misstep--is consequential, diligently reported in the society pages of the dozen or so daily newspapers. Lily and Charles, a financial genius but a reckless one, scale the social heights with the blessing of Lily’s brother William Collins Whitney.

Richard “Boss” Croker

Whitney will accumulate his fabulous fortune after abandoning his youthful idealism and a promising, political career to forge ties with the corrupt Tammany machine. In league with the notorious “Boss” Croker, Whitney is able to satisfy his ravenous appetite for luxury, magnificence and stables filled with winning racehorses. Among his most profitable gambits is his monopoly over the city’s surface transit system, which he achieves thanks to franchises awarded by his pal Boss Croker. Rather than make promised improvements to the system, Whitney pockets the profits and allows the system to deteriorate abysmally. This angers the masses who must ride the system, but does not trouble his upper-class peers who continue to envy and admire him.

Medieval Party with decorations by Stanford White

Lily and Charles Barney are A-list guests, while their own parties set a new standard for extravagance. They share a box at the opera with the Stanford Whites and Barney and the celebrated architect become lifelong friends. Barney will commission two townhouses in New York from White. The first, an early effort by White, gets mixed reviews. It being the fashion at the time to give each room a different theme--Medieval, Renaissance, etc., White embraces the idea with such exuberance that one critic berates the house as a “mad orgy of bad architecture.”

Joseph Pulitzer (left) and William Randall Hearst (right)

Charles and Lily are apparently pleased with the house, but when they feel it is no longer sufficiently palatial to reflect their rising stature in Society, they sell it to New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer and ask White to provide the redesign of a more impressive residence for the family on Park Avenue.

Windy Barn

For Lily there are always at least two fully staffed residences to manage, two daughters to be introduced to Society and groomed for the marriage market, and a husband who will rise to become president of the Knickerbocker Trust Company, but whose speculative market gambles and so-called “bouts of melancholy” put added stress on his wife. In 1886, Charles and Lily burnish their social standing by joining the Southampton summer colony, paying $20,000 for “Windy Barn,” the Hoyt house on Lake Agawam. Shortly after they take possession of the house, there are reports of renovations nearly doubling its size. A ballroom is added for lavish summer entertaining, along with other improvements that prompt the local press to hail it as “one of the finest country houses in Southampton.”

Rustic Picnic in a Meadow

At this point, Southampton’s status as a fashionable resort is no longer in doubt. Trains arriving from the city are delivering more than 700 summer visitors, though the handsome railway station will not open until 1902. The Meadow Club is ready to make the transition from an informal group of picnickers to the elite society venue it is about to become. The club had its origins when a few ladies from among the first families to make Southampton their summer retreat formed an informal club and met for tea in the meadow near their houses. The get-togethers were usually held on the Saturday mornings following their arrival by train on Friday evening. This first wave of summer colonists prided themselves in savoring the rustic pleasures of picnicking and other outdoor activities. This was not Newport, they stressed, with its emphasis on opulence. This was rusticating as it was meant to be. But rustication as an ideal very soon gave way to a less modest approach to summertime social life.

The Dolphins – J. Hampden Robb House

And in the decade since Windy Barn paved the way as the first summer cottage to be built on the western shore of Lake Agawam, others have followed Nettie Hoyt’s lead. Perhaps the most impressive among those that filled the shoreline was the house owned by Barney’s neighbor to the north, the wealthy banker, cotton merchant, and New York State Senator J. Hampden Robb. In 1885, Robb had hired New York’s premiere architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White, to design the handsome summer residence Robb called The Dolphins.

Charles & Helen Barney in Costume

To maintain their position at the center of the city’s social whirl, the Barneys must continue to entertain extravagantly and often. Elaborate costumed affairs are all the rage and here father and daughter are in 16th-century costume for one of the Barneys’ storied parties at their splendid Park Avenue townhouse.

Whitney Mansion

The year 1901 sees what may prove to be Lily’s greatest social triumph, though it will be followed by severe setbacks. On January 4, William Whitney combines the unveiling of his splendid new Italian-Renaissance palace on Fifth Avenue--one of his friend Stanford White’s most lavish creations--with a party celebrating Lily’s daughter Helen’s debut in Society. It’s a frigid night but there is a crowd of sidewalk spectators gathered in front of the mansion to witness the pageant of preening socialites as they descend from their carriages and enter the green onyx vestibule--once part of an ancient Florentine house.

Whitney Ball Library of Congress Catalog

Through the windows, the crowd sees only tiny slivers of the ballroom which is praised in the press as “the largest and most exquisite private ballroom in America [with] fittings and furnishings taken largely from foreign cities.” After a whirlwind European shopping trip, White had returned with whole ceilings, fireplaces and antique furnishings--sometimes entire rooms--removed intact from ancient estates and purchased for Whitney from high-end dealers. Stationed at the entrance to the ballroom to greet guests, Lily, flanked by her brother and daughter, is resplendent in velvet and brocade. Helen is demurely radiant in a gown of white mousseline de soie. Some 400 guests dance through the night at the party, which is the high point of the social season. It will be hailed by social historians as the event that “ushered in the 20th-century version of the Age of Extravagance.”

Stanford White

Inspired perhaps by such magnificence, Barney hires his friend Stanford White to completely renovate his Park Avenue residence. The family is exiled to a hotel where Lily watches her husband’s mental state deteriorate as the work drags on. She complains to White that Charley is horribly depressed” by the delay and pleads with him to finish the work.

Fire destroys everything.

Then, in November, 1901, with the work on Park Avenue still unfinished, disaster strikes in Southampton when a spectacular fire completely destroys the Lake Agawam house and everything in it. The family, still in residence, is forced to flee for their lives. A reporter describes a frantic Charles Barney railing against the slow pace of the firemen’s efforts as he watches his mansion burn to the ground.

The fiery demise of Windy Barn is dramatically reported in The New York Times, which headlines the story: “Barney’s House Burned, Country Residence at Southampton L.I. Destroyed - Family Fled for Life - Loss $250,000”

Beneath the headline, the reporter laments that the house “with all its contents, including rare bric-a-brac and paintings of great value by European artists, was totally destroyed by fire last night. It was still occupied, as it is the custom of the family to remain here until late November.” Forced to “flee for their lives in scant attire,” the account continues, they left behind “much fine the ruins of the house, of which this morning nothing remains but three tall chimneys.”

Lily’s missing jewels will be of continuing concern even after the last ember of the spectacular conflagration has been extinguished. The Brooklyn Eagle estimates their worth at nearly $100,000 and reports that an expert from Tiffany’s will visit the site to see if any can be rescued from the ashes. Then some good news in the New York Times on November 21: Thirty precious stones recovered and only seven more diamonds to be accounted for. Local builder William Enoch has been busy looking for the diamonds, carefully removing and sifting the ashes, then examining the bottom of the sieve with a magnifying glass.

Charlie Morse on Horseback

Soured by the experience, the Barneys do not rebuild and thereafter come to Southampton only as visitors. When both daughters marry well with appropriate praise from the press, Lily might be forgiven for thinking the tough times are behind her. Then, in 1907, Charles Barney makes a reckless attempt to corner the copper market, joining with some shady associates, including the notorious Wall Street scoundrel, Charlie Morse.

An unscrupulous but very successful scammer, Morse had earned the contempt of New Yorkers when he plotted with the corrupt Mayor Van Wyck and Boss Croker to monopolize the natural ice market in the city and then raised the price to unaffordable levels. Without ice, milk spoils, children suffer, and sometimes infants die.

Panic of 1907

Despite outrage and multiple lawsuits, Morse has managed to emerge from the ice scandal without ruinous financial consequences and, much to his later regret, Charles Barney permits his bank to hold a million dollars’ worth of stock in Morse’s shady companies. Morse, now free to turn his thoughts to cornering the even more promising copper market, enlists Barney in his scheme. For a banker with an almost paranoid fear of losing status, it is baffling that Barney would associate himself with a notorious Wall Street swindler.

J.P. Morgan

But Morse has recognized another side of his man. Barney, like Morse himself, is a gambler at heart, always ready to take a chance on a windfall with the potential to raise his stature to the level of titans like J.P. Morgan. So Morse makes his case for cornering the copper market to Barney, Barney signs on, and when the gamble backfires spectacularly, precipitating the terrible Panic of 1907, Barney loses the trust of Knickerbocker depositors and there is a run on his bank. It is the first in a devastating string of bank failures that threaten the whole fabric of Wall Street and bring the career of the Street’s wunderkind to an ignominious end.

It is about 10 a.m. on November 14, 1907, when Lily hears the crack of gunshot and rushes to her husband’s bedroom where she finds Charles lying on the floor next to a revolver he has used to shoot himself in the stomach. Kneeling beside him, she cradles his head in her lap and tries to soothe him, but the self-inflicted wound proves fatal. Unable to face life with his reputation in tatters, the 57-year-old Charles Barney has committed suicide in disgrace, leaving Lily to face a stream of rumors and innuendos. Press reports hint that she and her husband had become acutely estranged, that a divorce was imminent, and that there was “another woman.”

Lily survives the scandal to outlive her husband by nearly 40 years. Ever the dedicated socialite, in 1928 Lily is seen at the Meadow Club hosting a luncheon for another widowed survivor of scandal, Mrs. Stanford White.

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