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High Style in the Gilded Age: Rose de Rose

Updated: Aug 26, 2022


Rose de Rose (1902-1982) The High Society Misfit

Left - Rose de Rose with her father at 6 and a half years old

Right - Rose de Rose with her mother at 6 months

Nothing in Rose de Rose’s privileged background could have suggested that one future day she would be delivering eggs from her farm in Southampton, and that she would be known around town as “The Egg Lady.”Certainly her parents could not have anticipated that their only child, whom they were preparing for a life in High Society, would grow up to raise chickens and pigs on their magnificent 12-acre Southampton estate,and to reinvent herself as a farmer. Rose’s father, Edmund, like many another Gilded Age grandee, had made a fortune in coal; her mother was a descendant of General Joseph Bradley Varnum who had served under George Washington in the American Revolution.

The Main House on the estate at the corner of Hill Street and Halsey Neck Lane.

The handsome main house on the estate, thought to be a Stanford White design, was one of the earliest summer cottages in Southampton and had belonged to Edward Spencer Mead, a partner in the publishing house Dodd, Mead. What is certain is that the house is a beautiful survivor among the early summer “cottages” and has many of the architectural qualities associated with White. Early photographs testify to its graceful interior with its fruitwood paneled living room where, in 1891, Edward Mead hosted an historic gathering. Having discovered the game of golf when vacationing in the south of France, Mead invited some of his summer colony friends--Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas, J. Hampden Robb, George R. Schieffelin, Charles Barney, Samuel Parrish and Charles Atterbury-- to organize what became the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

Young Rose de Rose loves nature and animals

Once they became part of the Southampton “cottager colony,” the de Rose family--preceded by a battery of servants--would arrive every summer in their private railroad car to spend the season in Southampton. As a child, Rose de Rose was probably indifferent to the splendors of the family residence. It was when roaming its vast and glorious grounds, accompanied by her dogs, cats and other animals that she was happiest. A sickly child--reportedly epileptic--she reveled in the undemanding companionship of her pets and the calm beauty of her outdoor surroundings.

Left - Rose’s tribute to her friend Alice Kneeland Monroe.

Right - another woodcarving by Rose

Much as she loved the freedom to roam, Rose was far from a wild child. She seems to have been an eager student and patient in perfecting a number of skills. She learned the art of woodcarving from a Scandinavian craftsman and became quite good at it. She mastered several languages, developed proficiency as a pianist and was said to have a lovely singing voice. There were in fact few indications during her childhood and adolescence of her later rebellion against conventional behavior. As long as her parents held sway over her conduct,she submitted to the traditional training received by females born into wealthy,high-ranking families.

Dining Hall at Spence School

When the time came for Rose to move beyond private instruction, she was sent to Miss Spence’s School for Girls in New York. A 1916 report on her progress, which survives in the archives of the Southampton History Museum, shows her ranked among the best in her class. Two years later, in August of 1918, Rose resumed her studies at Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield Massachusetts.

Rose is awarded an A, despite her absence from elocution class.
Portrait of Rose de Rose with her cat.

In her teen years she was becoming an astonishing beauty, one who was expected to dazzle at the debutante balls. Not yet ready to challenge expectations, she remained a promising socialite, at least in her mother’s eyes. It is during this period of Rose’s early adulthood that she and her mother began traveling the world together and their comings and goings were chronicled faithfully in the Southampton Press cottager columns. Items in the paper’s “Cottager” columns invariably began, “Mrs. Edward de Rose and her daughter Miss Rose de Rose…”

In 1917, they sailed on the “Lapland” to spend the summer in Europe and took the same ship to Europe in 1920, returning from their summer in Europe on the Olympic to occupy the house in Southampton until after Thanksgiving. In 1922, they were together again in Hot Springs, then returned to Southampton to co-host “a garden tea with Hawaiian music” at Westover.

Cadillac Touring Car 1925
Roses’ travels broaden beyond Europe.

A 1924 “motor trip to Maine” left them both wanting more and in May of 1925, the Press reported that “Mrs. Edward de Rose and her daughter, Miss Rose de Rose, who have been motoring in Italy, are now in Rome. They will return next month and come to Southampton.” Not long afterward in a list of new car owners published in the Press, Miss de Rose’s purchase of a Cadillac Touring Car is duly noted.

Seem tight, but...

Like so many others from her social class she began spending most of her summers in Southampton while taking time out to visit other fashionable resorts like Bar Harbor, Maine, and Newport, Rhode Island.

Striking and statuesque, Rose de Rose as a young women.

In time, however, there were signs that troubled her mother. Rose reached the unladylike height of nearly six feet and her lovely singing voice notwithstanding, her speaking voice was rather loud and quite deep. For a while, Rose studied opera, but perhaps hampered by her illness, she was never to be an opera star. Nor was she going to deliver on her early promise as a socialite, as eventually became obvious. Wresting control of her life from her mother’s grip, she began to show her disdain for Society, for its balls, its teas and its frivolous fashion. Suitors were dispatched with little ceremony and arguments with her disappointed mother grew ever more frequent.

The back cottage

Finally, Rose moved out of the “Big House,” though she didn’t go very far. She moved into a small cottage at the far end of the property, allowing the two women to live as separately as possible without either of them actually having to leave. Two years after that, her mother died and Rose, who had been a caring, if disappointing daughter in her mother’s last years, felt free to lead the life of a country woman, answering only to her own desire to live in nature with no obligations to fashion or shallow society.

Left - an elderly Rose at home | Right - Charlie Parker

With no interest in returning to the three-story main house after her inheritance, she boarded it up and fired all the servants. Thereafter, the loyal and talented Charlie Parker served for the rest of her life as her irreplaceable groundskeeper/chauffeur. As for the “Big House,” for the next 35 years, it remained fully furnished but unoccupied. In her much smaller cottage, Rose, an inveterate collector of everything and anything, relished the clutter, while outside she gave full rein to her farming instincts. This is when she began raising chickens and eggs and delivering them free. Mr. Parker would drive her on her rounds, which included only certain people. The late Ella King, when asked about her friend and neighbor, recalled that “If she didn’t like you, she wouldn’t sell you eggs.”

Rose and her farm animals

She seems to have spent most of her time outdoors as long as the weather held, raising splendid gardens of flowers and edibles with the aid of Mr. Parker and tending to her chickens and pigs. In the winter, the interior clutter was shared with some visitors from the barnyard. It wasn’t unusual, Ms. King recalled, to see chickens roosting up in the ceiling beams and small piglets nestled by the fireplace. Such unconventional behavior and her habit of always wearing the identical baggy housedress labeled her as an eccentric. But she was not the total oddball recluse some imagined her to be. She traveled, had her favorites among village residents, and she even entertained. She was photographed at one point at the head of an outdoor picnic table that seated many guests.

Outings from the nursing home probably included visits to the farm.

Rose spent her last two years at the Todd Nursing Home but, even then, she went out every day, chauffeured by Mr. Parker, according to her friend Ella King. When she died in the fall of 1982, Southampton Hospital inherited the bulk of her estate, but she also remembered her favorite local institutions and friends. She left bequests to four churches, several libraries and the Southampton History Museum, among others. A Riverhead liquor store owner, who always “got her what she wanted,” was the recipient of $5,000, and Robert Keene, then the town historian and a bookseller, inherited thousands of books. As he remarked at the time, he was astonished to discover that, in some cases, there were eight or 10 copies of the same book.

In 1985, a portrait of Rose de Rose and a plaque commemorating her generosity to Southampton Hospital were installed at the Southampton Nursing Home, which the hospital, aided by a bequest from her will, purchased in 1982.

Indeed, Rose de Rose’s one true eccentricity may have been her habit of almost never acquiring just one of anything she fancied. She would instead buy a half dozen or so of each item and then squirrel the multiples away untouched. After her death, it took eight auctions for the hospital to dispose of the contents of her barns and sheds, which were packed to the rafters with her unused purchases. And even then, there were still many leftovers to be stocked and sold at the Southampton Hospital Thrift Shop!



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