High Style in the Gilded Age: The Cryder Triplets



b: 1882 (Edith, d: 1954; Ethel, d: 1964; Elsie, d: 1981)

Cryder Beach Paperweight

Cryder Memorial Window, St. Andrew’s Dune Church, “Sir Galahad,” Tiffany Studios

Duncan Cryder, a well-heeled tea importer and father of the celebrated Cryder triplets, Edith, Elsie and Ethel, once acknowledged that his fondest hope for his daughters was that each would marry “a man who did not have to go to business every day.” A man of great charm and wit, Duncan Cryder had been raised in London and was comfortable and popular wherever he went. The Cryders were among the early members of Southampton’s resort colony, summering in “Sandrift,” a shingled cottage built on the dunes in 1885 (and now long gone). There, as in the streets of New York City where they spend the rest of the year, the three adorable little girls, born in 1882, turn heads whenever they step out, dressed identically and impossible to tell apart.

The triplets’ mother, Elizabeth Ogden Cryder, boasted a proud heritage.

Impressed on the girls from the start is the importance of their mother Elizabeth Ogden Cryder’s pedigree. Among her illustrious Ogden ancestors was John Ogden, who in 1670 had abandoned hundreds of acres in Shinnecock Hills because he disapproved of the way the Indians were being treated there. He departed for New Jersey where he became the leader of Elizabethtown and later governor.

Sandrift, the house farthest away in view

Unfortunately, the girls’ early childhood idyll of summers on the shore and winter in the glittering city comes to an abrupt end when they are eight years old. In 1891, their uncle, William Wetmore Cryder, besmirches the family name by helping himself to $39,000 from the Manhattan Square Bank where he is president and Duncan serves on the board. William, a pillar of the financial community, has also been a pillar of support for Duncan’s family, which is dependent on him to supplement the sometimes meager tea business profits. Making matters worse for everyone, William reneges on his debts and deserts his wife. To escape the family scandal, Duncan Cryder sweeps his family off to Paris, a move that has some very pleasant consequences for Edith, Elsie and Ethel.

Empress Eugenie, surrounded by her ladies in waiting, is a fashion icon in her glory days.

Apparently, the money never dries up completely, but when it is reduced to a trickle, the Cryders put on a good front. In Europe, the triplets live what Elsie later recalls as “a life of leisure.” Educated by their governess, they learn French and invent a secret language. They tour Europe and, guided by their father, acquire the continental polish that will attract the kind of men who will never be tied to a desk. By visiting the British and continental cities and spas in the off-season, they save money but establish social ties that will endure. They meet Consuelo Vanderbilt, who becomes Ethel’s best friend. In 1897, they are honored by an invitation to visit the Empress Eugenie, widow of the last emperor of France--their crowning achievement. Elsie, always the most audacious, is her father’s favorite. Her sisters predict that she will be the most successful in carrying out her father’s ambitions for his daughters, though by the time it is felt safe to return home all three have acquired impeccably aristocratic manners and social ease. They are celebrities, pointed out when they pass on the street.

The Celebrity Sisters

On their return in 1899, the triplets take Manhattan society by storm. They settle in at their Greenwich Village home, filling it with souvenirs of their travels. At their debut in 1900 they are extravagantly dressed and the stars of the evening, though they are awarded faint praise in Town Topics. The widely read society sheet describes the triplets as “pleasant, well-mannered, but not really pretty girls, tall and slight in figure and graceful in movement.” Pretty or not, they appear on magazine covers, inspire rhapsodic prose in the society columns, and wealthy suitors flock to their door.

Stone Hill House

The first to be married (and curiously labeled “the oldest” of the triplets) is Edith, whose groom Frederick Lothrop Ames Jr., is a“financier and socialite” whose Ames ancestor arrived in Plymouth, Mass. in 1635. Ameses succeed in numerous ways over the years, but the enterprise that accounts for Frederick’s huge fortune is the company founded by his grandfather, which ultimately manufactures three-fifths of all the shovels in the world. Frederick’s father, heir to the shovel fortune, is said to be the richest man in Massachusetts, and Edith’s husband, an heir at 17 after his father’s premature death, is well schooled in the art of high living and lavish spending by the time he and Edith are married. The wedding takes place in May, 1904, with Ethel and Elsie as bridesmaids. That same year, Ames commissions architects to design a Georgian Revival mansion for him and his bride on his vast country estate near Boston. Stone Hill House, as they call it, is completed in 1905. (It is now part of Stone Hill College.)