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High Style in the Gilded Age: The Cryder Triplets

Updated: Aug 26, 2022



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.)

Ames Villa, Newport (center)

In 1916, Frederick and Edith acquire another mansion, one that will put them in position to enter Newport society. They call their new dwelling on Bellevue Avenue “Ames Villa” and proceed to completely remodel it. Originally a Stick Style cottage known as “New Lodge,” it is a mansion in the Classical Revival Style when the transformation is complete.

The NY Times gives Ethel’s betrothal a big headline.

Five months later, it is Elsie at the altar and it’s another magnificent match. Unaware of the tenuous position the Cryder family has held at times in society and of its financial stresses, the society press calls the union a coup for William Woodward, though he is certainly a catch himself with old money, blue blood and a future as president of the Hanover National Bank. The wedding in October 1904 is another triumph for Duncan Cryder who continues to be described in the press as “very wealthy and highly connected.” Then, in December 1908, complete victory is his when Ethel, last of the triplets to marry, is courted and won by Cecil Higgins. A wealthy former secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, he sweeps Ethel off to England and a life in London society.

Ethel survives Edith by ten years.

With their exits to Boston and London, respectively, Edith and Ethel move out of the New York spotlight, leaving Elsie to bask alone in its glow. Edith is widowed when Frederick Ames dies unexpectedly in 1921 at the age of 45. She keeps “Ames Villa” in Newport but wastes little time in selling Stone Hill House, having little interest in the huge agricultural estate and the Guernsey cattle that were her late husband’s pride. Stodgy Boston society and cows, even prize-winning cattle, can’t compete with the heady pleasures of Gilded Age Newport. In 1931, when the widowed Edith marries Roger Cutler, considered “a good-humored playboy,” handsome, athletic and seven years her junior, eyebrows are raised. But Edith and her new husband spend their summers in “Ames Villa” and hold a secure place in Newport’s elite circles. Edith, the first to be married, is the first to die in 1954 at the age of 72.

Ethel’s death follows ten years later. She too, has remarried in 1921. Her second husband, Arthur Fowler, is a widower whose first wife had been very wealthy. At his death he bequeaths to Ethel his first wife’s fortune, which Ethel uses to settle in Georgetown, becoming a celebrated Washington hostess second only to her close friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Belair Mansion in Bowie, Maryland

“Three Who Lived to Get Married” was the way one writer viewed the triplets in their days as celebrated young beauties. Edith and Ethel each marry twice, while Elsie has the longest marriage and the longest—but far from the happiest—life. The early years of her marriage are the stuff of dreams. Headed for a top spot in the city’s financial community, William Woodward Sr., has another more dashing side. After Harvard undergraduate and law degrees, he serves as secretary to the United States Ambassador to Britain and hobnobs with King Edward II and his circle, including at the race track. Back home, he inherits the historic Belair Mansion and Belair Stud, the thoroughbred horse racing stable and breeding farm in Maryland that would produce some of the greatest thoroughbred racehorses in the U.S. under his direction. During his courtship of Elsie there were visits to the Saratoga race course and after their marriage the young Woodwards are favorites in the racing community as well as in New York City society, where they entertain lavishly at 9 East 86th Street.

Billy Woodward and “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, who trained the Woodward horses.

Alas, scandal seems to stalk Elsie. Earlier, the Cryder family disgrace actually had had rather pleasant consequences for the triplets in 1891, sending them off to Paris. The Woodward scandals will be much more damaging. Elsie’s only son, William “Billy” Woodward Jr. seems at first to be destined for a charmed life. Educated at Buckley, Groton and Harvard, Billy has everything going for him. He is the apple of his mother’s eye and spoiled by his four older sisters. He is listed as one of America’s most eligible bachelors.

Ann Woodward By Dali

Then Ann Crowell, a Kansas-born radio actress who is determined to crash New York's high society, comes along and precipitates a series of scandals that will torment Elsie for years to come. A beautiful and shameless striver, Ann sets her sights first on William Sr. who, perhaps inevitably, has abandoned any pretext of living the life of a sobersided banker. High living among the high-stakes thoroughbred racing crowd is more to his taste and he is rumored to have taken Ann on as a mistress and then passed her down to his son. Elsie presumably has the high tolerance for her husband's dalliances that the Gilded Age requires of wives, but her son is another matter. Dead set against a marriage, she goes so far as to hire a detective to follow Ann and is horrified to learn of Ann's trail of lovers. But on March 11, 1943, Billy and Ann are married in a quiet wedding in Tacoma, Washington, where he is stationed in the Navy. A devastated Elsie does not attend the ceremony.

The young Woodwards make a glamorous couple.

The marriage is volatile, marked by frequent fights and numerous affairs. Without the Navy to bring order to his life, and despite his marriage, Billy resumes his former playboy habits. Elsie is desperate to interest him in something other than parties and chasing women but, again, she fails. Ann holds her own in the marital battles and holds on, planning trips and treats for Billy and giving birth to two sons. Despite their fraught alliance, the younger Woodwards remain fixtures in upper-class society.

As Ann dissolves in hysterics, Billy’s body is removed from their home.

In 1955, Ann and Billy are still together, living in Oyster Bay where there is talk of a prowler in their neighborhood. Before leaving for a nearby party at which the Duchess of Windsor is to be the honored guest, they make a search of the property around their house with flashlights, but find nothing out of order. At the party, Billy dances with the Duchess and Ann watches closely as he taps other partners. Back home, they retire to their separate rooms. Then, around 2 a.m., there is the sound of gunshot and Billy lies dead. Ann has shot him with the shotgun she keeps by her bed and claims to have mistaken her husband for the prowler.

Illustration of the murder at the Woodward estate in Oyster Bay.

Elsie allows Ann to order the flowers for Billy's casket but forbids her to attend the funeral. Ann chooses a blanket of white chrysanthemums and red carnations, the color scheme of Billy's racing stable.

Billy’s flower-covered casket

Some are quick to call it murder; others hasten to protect the Woodward name. Elsie does both. By all accounts, she is convinced that it was murder committed by the daughter-in-law whom she has never accepted as a worthy match for a Woodward, and whom she dislikes intensely. On the other hand, the Woodward name must be saved from scandal. In the end, she backs Ann publicly in the hope that the press will then refrain from digging for dirt on Billy's philandering. When a grand jury is convened, it absolves Ann of murder without quieting doubts. Elsie's hand in the favorable outcome for Ann rumored to have been heavy, costing her some $400,000. Ann is free but her social friends take a cue from Elsie and shun her. Charming Billy is dead and Ann is banished from society.

Elsie outlives her son by many years, soldiering on, a stalwart socialite, but her trials are seemingly endless. In 1975, when an excerpt of Truman Capote's book "Answered Prayers" appears in Esquire reviving the 20-year-old tale of Billy's tragic death and repeating society's judgment that his wife was the likely murderer, Ann is driven to suicide. She takes her own life with a capsule of cyanide--one more scandal for Elsie to face down, and not the last. Before long, both of her grandsons--Ann's sons--will jump out of windows to their deaths. Facing her own death at 99 in 1981, Elsie remains unbent, telling a friend, "I'm just going down like a ship. All my sails are up but I'm just sinking.



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