High Style in the Gilded Age: Ruth Wales du Pont


 

Ruth Wales du Pont (1887-1967)

Ruth Wales du Pont

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.

Young Ruth in Hyde Park

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.

Ox Pasture

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.

Elihu Root

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.




Mayfair

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.

Meadow Club