High Style in the Gilded Age: Ruth Wales du Pont
Ruth Wales du Pont (1887-1967)
Ruth Wales, born in 1889, is raised in Hyde Park, New York, and spends much of her adult life in Delaware at Winterthur, the historic mansion which her husband developed into a world-famous museum of Americana. Yet, for most of her life it is in Southampton that she feels most at home. Her father, Edward Wales, is a Columbia graduate, a stockbroker, and a charming philanderer. Despite—or perhaps because of the lofty reputation of his own father--the very prominent New York City publisher and politician Salem H. Wales—Edward chooses not to attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps. At 39, he makes the reckless decision to retire and follow his own, less respectable path. As a result, the marriage to Ruth’s mother is troubled; Edward is present at Hyde Park only sporadically; and money is tight.
Left: Winterthur | Right: Wales House, Hyde Park
It may sound like a grim environment in which to raise a daughter but by most accounts, including her own, Ruth is happy growing up in a household that includes her mother and her much-loved maternal grandmother. And when her wandering father stops at Hyde Park, it is apparently a treat, at least for Ruth. Nevertheless, at the age of 12, Ruth is sent as a boarder to Miss Spence’s School in New York, perhaps an indication of her mother’s concern regarding her unusual home life. Ruth appears to be happy there as well, excelling in her studies and making lifelong friends. Letters fly back and forth between Ruth and her mother and Ruth’s are full of evidence of her intellect and wit. She begins piano lessons when she is 13 and before long she is putting nursery rhymes to music of her own composition.
Every summer there is a visit to Southampton and Ox Pasture, Ruth’s grandfather’s big, beautiful residence on Lake Agawam. In 1880, Salem Wales had had the foresight to buy 10 acres on the lake at a per-acre price that had risen over a 10-year period from $50 to $75, and then to $300! Needless to say, it was an excellent investment. Just four years later, the revered summer colony leader Dr. T. Gaillard Thomas would declare that “this apparently insignificant lagoon has thus far constituted the key to the situation as far as concerns Southampton becoming a summer resort for the residents of cities.” By then the per-acre price had hit $4000.
As a young girl, Ruth falls in love with the village. At Ox Pasture she is perfectly located at the center of the lively lake scene. There are sailboats on the water, a bike path circling the shore, regattas to celebrate the fourth of July and evening gatherings of Agawam neighbors, who arrive by rowboat. The Wales family is well integrated into summer colony life, though when the patriarch, Salem Wales, acquires for $200 the tiny peninsula jutting into the lake – visible in this image—villagers, who regard it as public property, are outraged. Wales holds firm, though, and only after his death is the point removed in 1907 and the earth used to fill the unwholesome swamp at the head of the lake, which eventually becomes Agawam Park.
In 1896, when Ruth is seven, another attraction arrives at the lake when her uncle Elihu Root and his wife Clara move into their new house next door. Ruth’s Aunt Clara, her father’s sister, is the wife a high-flying man like Root must have—gracious, intelligent and socially nimble. With her at his side, Root, well known as a powerful corporate lawyer, politician and statesman, will go on to join the cabinets of Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. Power brokers from all over the world will pass through the doors of Mayfair whenever the Roots are in residence.
As she leaves childhood behind, Ruth is a very popular young woman with many suitors, “kicking up her heels” on the summer circuit, according to family lore. The circuit includes Bar Harbor, Watch Hill, New York City, and, of course, Southampton, where she can combine partying at the Meadow Club with a visit to the patriarch.
When she is in her early 20s, Ruth is escorted by her father on a trip abroad, visiting London and Paris. In England father and daughter are given a tour of the Royal Stables where Rosa Lewis, widely believed to be one of Edward VII’s many mistresses, leads them through the magnificent accommodations for 150 horses. In letters home, Ruth lavishes praise on the horses—all stallions! And on Rosa Lewis, who started out as a cook and has risen to fortune and fame. Yet, in the same letter, she commends the British concept of rank, which she writes, “certainly keeps people in their place…no overlapping of the classes.” Though open-minded in many respects, she reveals herself as firmly class conscious.
Nothing in her lively single years prepares those who know Ruth for what comes next. About the time that she turns 20, her parents rent a house in Washington so that her father can get the best treatment available for glaucoma. Under the wing of the well established Washingtonians Elihu and Clara Root, Ruth is quickly embraced by society in the capital, and because they are of the same generation, she and the young Henry Francis DuPont are often seated next to each other at dinner. The son of a senator, Colonel Henry Algernon du Pont, whose prickly nature has made him unpopular among his peers, Henry Francis, known as Harry, is also regarded as a social misfit, though for very different reasons. He is shy and socially awkward--an introvert in a social world where extroverts thrive--and at first Ruth seems to share her friends’ dismissive opinion of the young man she is so often stuck with.
Then Ruth’s feelings toward Harry undergo a radical change. As she gets to know him better and to see beyond his shy veneer, she falls in love with him. She is invited to parties at Winterthur and accepts. She also sees Harry in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. When they are not together, there are countless letters. She learns about Harry’s childhood, loved and privileged, yes, but also, full of sadness. By the time of his birth, his mother had buried five children and feared nothing more than that she would lose Harry as well. She coddled him, he empathized when she was ill or depressed, and they became very close. When she died in 1902, as he was entering his fourth year at Harvard, he was devastated and will still be grieving a decade later when he finds in Ruth another woman he can love—just the right partner to lead him from his self-imposed loneliness to a richer, happier life. In 1912, Harry joins Ruth, another woman, a young man and a chaperone on a cruise through the recently completed Panama Canal. Ruth writes home that “no one could be nicer than Harry” and no trip “could have been more fun.” For another four years Ruth and Harry circle each other in a curious courtship during which Ruth will be called upon repeatedly to dismiss Harry’s uncertainties about marriage and his debilitating lack of self-confidence.
On June 24, 1916, having just turned 36 and 27 years old respectively, Harry and Ruth are married in the Episcopal church at Hyde Park. A special car attached to a New York Central train transports friends from New York. Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, is among the guests and has brought along a torpedo boat from New York. After a reception under a tent on the Wales’ Hyde Park lawn, Ruth and Harry are off on a three-month honeymoon.
Letters home describe their happiness as they cover much of the North American continent. Harry, who has taken over the management of Winterthur after his graduation, gathers plants, rocks and seeds for Winterthur’s magnificent gardens and Ruth writes of how happy she is to see her husband pursuing his passion for horticulture.
It is obvious to everyone that Ruth and Harry are deeply in love and that theirs is a perfect match. In a letter full of praise for his niece and her new husband, Ruth’s Uncle Elihu concludes with the thought that “both of them are very fortunate.” And at first, Ruth is determined not to let circumstances that might be trying for ANY new bride interfere with her happiness. Winterthur, where the couple resides after their honeymoon, is magnificent, but remains the domain of her father-in-law, Colonel Henry du Pont, a difficult man with alien views. (During his lifetime, for example, no divorced person is ever allowed to enter the house.) In the decade during which the three adults manage to co-exist, Ruth gives birth to the first of their two daughters, Pauline, in 1918. That same year, her relationship with the Colonel, and the feeling that Winterthur is hostile territory are stressful enough that she is taking what she refers to as “nervous medicine.” There are no cracks in the bond between man and wife, though the stress on Harry, who has always been a dutiful son and is devoted to Winterthur, is also extreme, as he must act as the diplomat.
In 1921, Harry negotiates a compromise whereby Ruth will spend little time at Winterthur, and that summer they purchase an apartment in New York at 280 Park Avenue. Pregnant again, Ruth gives birth to their second daughter, Ruth Ellen, in January 1922. With a home of her own, a loving husband and two healthy daughters, Ruth seems to have an enviable life. But it is apparent to those around her that her appealing merriment and ready laugh conceal a dark outlook on life. Instead of settling into her new circumstances and finding relief from the stress of Winterthur, she is increasingly vulnerable to new anxieties. Acknowledging what she terms her “well-known nerve symptoms,” she complains of gastritis, insomnia, and bouts of tears. In November of 1924, she heeds the advice of Dr. George A. Dixon (who happens to be the brother of Harry’s best man as well as an early member of the Southampton summer colony and a founder of Southampton Hospital) and she agrees to his suggestion that she enter Austen Riggs, a hospital in the Berkshire foothills, for a stay of three weeks. Walks in the snowy woods, plenty of sleep and her talks with the highly respected Dr. Riggs, help, though Ruth’s animosity toward the Colonel remains until his death.
Also in 1924 Harry purchases oceanfront land on the recently opened Meadow Lane in Southampton. After spending several previous seasons in rental cottages in Marblehead, and then Southampton, Southampton becomes the du Ponts’ permanent summer headquarters, a decision that surely reflects Ruth’s fondness for the village and her memories of lovely summer stays at Ox Pasture on Lake Agawam. Southampton will henceforth take its place as one of four domiciles occupied by the du Ponts on a regular schedule. Winters are spent in New York, summers in Southampton, spring and fall weekends, as well as holidays at Winterthur, with the occasional winter escape to Florida for Ruth and Harry.
With Colonel du Pont’s death in 1926, Ruth is relieved of what has been the greatest source of stress for her in the first decade of her marriage. The Colonel’s demise is also undeniably liberating for Harry, who inherits Winterthur and can proceed with ambitious plans for the property and for a freer and better life for Ruth, himself and their two daughters. He is now a fabulously wealthy man with no reason to hold back on plans for his mansion in Southampton, which is the place dearest to his wife’s heart. While the massive H-shaped structure of whitewashed brick is under construction on the dunes, the family lives in its matching eight-bedroom garage with upper living quarters, which is already finished. The many rooms of Chestertown House are filled with valuable antiques, in some cases the entire interiors of old buildings, some from Chestertown, Maryland, which accounts for the name given the mansion. Now Ruth will be mistress of two palace-size dwellings regally staffed with butlers, footmen in livery, kitchen, laundry and house maids, a valet and uniformed chauffeurs for a fleet of black Cadillacs.
In August of 1926 the family moves from the ample garage into the immense Chestertown House. In the early years of their residence, Harry is said to have drawn up elaborate plans for its conversion after his death to a museum of Early Americana. He came to realize, however, that Winterthur, with its historic mansion and ample grounds, would be a better choice for that purpose, permitting him to give full rein to his passions not only for American antiques but for his serious horticultural pursuits and even his enthusiasm for cattle-breeding. Ruth, who has long dreamed of a less formal family house than Winterthur, can only be delighted by her husband’s decision. Informality at Chestertown House, however, is a relative concept. The du Ponts become known in the Southampton summer colony for their regular Friday-night dinner parties which, for some, it seems, are dreaded affairs. Formal dress is required and, as a frequent guest once observed, the menu never varied from undercooked salmon and undercooked lamb, and the dining room was often an inferno. Even on the hottest evenings of the summer, the windows were always shut tight to protect the precious antiques from the damp ocean air.
In a staunchly Republican village, among the even more Republican-leaning summer colony subset, dinner table conversation at the du Ponts’ Friday-night gatherings is usually reliably congenial. But after Franklin Roosevelt wins the presidency, that changes and anyone who may not share the fury aimed at Roosevelt’s New Deal finds it prudent to remain silent while their fellow guests rail against “that man in the White House who sold us down the river.” Perhaps because the Roosevelts were friends and neighbors of the Wales family in Hyde Park when Ruth was growing up there, she takes the president’s policies particularly personally. Her daughter Ruth Ellen once described her mother’s angry tirades against the president as no less than “pathological.” He was “a traitor to his class” in the eyes of her mother who wrote in letters discovered after her death to the Secretary of the Treasury requesting that all Roosevelt dimes be recalled and that no more be minted. She was willing to pay the costs.
In 1936, the du Ponts take a five-month round-the-world cruise with their daughters, occupying four cabins in the cruise ship and visiting Brazil, South Africa, India and the Far East before returning that May. In 1938, Pauline is married at Winterthur and Ruth Ellen’s wedding in 1947 is the final major event at Winterthur before the house conversion to a museum. The wedding draws a capacity crowd, some no doubt eager to have a pre-museum look at the magnificent interior. Following the museum’s official opening in October 1951, the response is phenomenal. For the next two years tickets are at a premium and by the museum’s eighth year, it is clear that the existing building can no longer accommodate the growing number of staff and visitors. A major expansion includes, among other things, space for an installation of shop the Dominy family of cabinetmakers and clockmakers occupied in East Hampton between 1757 and 1864. It is the first of many expansions.
Ten years later, in 1961 Harry accepts an invitation from Jacqueline Kennedy to head a 12-member Fine Arts Committee for the White House, which would be charged with overseeing a restoration of the building with historically authentic furniture and decorative accessories from the time of its completion and occupancy in 1802. Over the next two and a half years, more than 100 letters are exchanged as Harry puts his expertise at the disposal of the committee and collaborates with Jacqueline Kennedy.
At about the same time, Harry is lending his support to the Southampton Historical Museum--then the Colonial Society--which, also in 1961, acquires the 1682 homestead of Thomas Halsey, a leader among Southampton’s founders in 1640. Du Pont’s support for the South Main Street homestead includes passing on the appropriateness of the furnishings, some of which he donates. For that he is well remembered in Southampton.
Nor has Ruth Wales du Pont been forgotten. There is a small preserve on the point between Heady Creek and Taylor Creek memorializing this very complicated woman for whom the two constants in her life were her love of her husband and her love of Southampton. To visit the preserve, take Captains Neck lane south toward the waterfront and you will arrive at the Ruth Wales du Pont Sanctuary.