Interviews

Jean Zimmerman Q and A

Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance

What inspired you to write Love, Fiercely?

Love, Fiercely is a dual biography of Edith and Newton Stokes. I first encountered the couple during research for my previous book, The Women of the House. Looking for New Amsterdam documents, I discovered The Iconography of Manhattan Island, Newton’s masterpiece. I first tracked down the Iconography on an out of the way reference shelf in a university library near my home, and was astonished by its size and comprehensiveness. As I hoisted its volumes, I began to speculate about the author of this heavy, densely packed, six-volume tome. What obsession did it spring from? And when I went to look up the author’s name—strange name it was, too, I.N. Phelps Stokes—he seemed shrouded in mystery. I could find almost nothing about him in books or journal articles. I wanted to know who had assembled this massive, marvelous work. Then, as I dug a bit and found out that his wife Edith had been a great beauty and artist’s model, the face of the Gilded Age, I was hooked.

You subtitle your book, “A Gilded Age Romance.” What was the Gilded Age?

Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, American experienced a period of great prosperity and growth. At the same time, inequities of wealth and background helped deepen the incredible gulf between the decadent haves and the struggling have-nots, which reminded me of social injustices that exist today. Edith and Newton were definitely members of the one percent—his fortune was much larger than hers—but they were committed to progressive causes and spent their whole lives in pursuit of them. The Gilded Age forms such a stunning background to their lives, the formal balls that began at midnight and lasted until morning, the privately owned islands in Long Island Sound, the huge mansions and multiple summer homes. But I was happy that my subjects demonstrated a very modern progressive sense.

What attracted you to the lives of this couple?

The contrasts that abounded in their story. Elegant, patrician, wealthy, they also worked alongside down in the trenches to solve society’s ills. They were so active, so creative, so beautiful, that watching their downfall, when they lost their money and fell to ill health, couldn’t have been sadder. And the painting that immortalized them, by John Singer Sargent, was an aesthetic masterpiece.

Newton and Edith went through good times and bad. What held their relationship together through thick and thin?

They came from similar backgrounds, the group of New Yorkers that had been christened “The 400,” supposedly for the number of elites that could fit into Mrs. Caroline Astor’s ballroom. Children of the elite were raised to marry within the tribe. Beyond their backgrounds, though, the two of them felt a kinship, a mutual respect, that came from sharing the same values. Both were progressives, and both believed in doing great deeds, whether it was reforming tenements in Newton’s case or getting the vote for women in Edith’s. They fell in love when they were children with a love that lasted until they were parted by death.

What were some of Stokes’s greatest accomplishments?

His finest accomplishment, bar none, was the six-volume book called The Iconography of Manhattan Island. He was a very good architect, and designed some beautiful, lasting additions to the Manhattan landscape, chief of which, I believe, is the gorgeous St. Paul’s Chapel on the Columbia University campus.

But his true legacy was the Iconography. The work encompasses hundreds of maps, prints, tables and lists, with in-depth, exhaustively researched text to bind it all together. It is a historian’s dream. If it weren’t for Stokes, much of what we know about early New York would have been lost forever. The book gave full expression to his genius. There is nothing quite like the Iconography in all the works that exist on the topic of Manhattan.

How did The Iconography get to be so huge?

Stokes worked on the Iconography over the course of 15 years, from 1911 to 1926. As he worked on the book, he basically became obsessed with it – with publishing and with owning the maps and views he wanted to publish. He became a completist, insisting upon including every visual, every scrap of information, all the data available. All of it. Getting everything became his grail. The result was six volumes that were oversize, over 400 pages each, in such small type that much of it requires a magnifying glass.

What was unusual about John Singer Sargent’s painting of  “Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes”?

Before his portrait of Edith and Newton, Sargent always posed his wealthy subjects wearing elegant formal garb. In the portrait, Edith Minturn has a flushed, glowing countenance, and is dressed as if she had just rushed in off the tennis court. Newton, too, wears casual clothes, white summer flannels. There is a feeling of action, of energy about the couple that was not apparent in Sargent’s other more posed,  static compositions.

Was it appreciated at the time?

Critics hated the portrait—at first. They dismissed its sense of perspective, saying the surface of the image was too flat, Edith’s head was out of proportion, a canvas that looked “raw” in comparison with other paintings of the day. But soon enough the appraisal turned completely around, and critics were calling it brilliant and one of Sargent’s finest works. The portrait appeared on the cusp of a new way of thinking about women, and Edith totally personified the American Girl in all her wonderful freshness, athleticism and independence.

Daniel Chester French created an outsize sculpture of Edith that was truly larger than life. Let’s hear some of the stats.

The Statue of the Republic, as she was called, stood 65 feet tall, on a base of 35 feet, making her almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. Edith, who was then 24, posed wearing a Roman stola with a crowning wreath of laurel. She held an eagle perched atop a globe in one hand and a “liberty pole” in the other. Working from a three-foot high maquette, French enlarged Edith’s figure until the statue towered above the “lagoon” at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, covered in gold leaf, the largest statue ever created in America.

Another larger than life creation was Shadowbrook, the summer house that belonged to the Stokes family.

Edith and her family visited Newton and his family over one memorable New Year’s weekend in 1894. People felt privileged to be invited by the Stokes family to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to the grand-beyond-grand mansion Shadowbrook, which along with 75 other new mansions in the Berkshires of the 1890s, was fondly called a “cottage” by their inhabitants. Henry James pooh-poohed these structures as “grand mistakes.” Anson and Helen built their house overlooking Lake Mahkeenac, sparing no cost as to its size or its furnishings. The rambling Tudor castle had 100 rooms, an acre of space on each of four floors, and was at its completion the largest private residence in the U.S. There was nothing like it in terms of sheer excess. With the snow coming down it made for a romantic place for a marriage proposal—even if Edith did reject Newton when first he proposed. Shadowbrook burned to the ground in 1956, long after the Stokes family sold it and moved on to their next mansion.

At one point Newton and Edith took an unusual approach to building a home of their own.

As Newton sank deeper and deeper into his obsessive research for the Iconography, one thing that drew him back was his and Edith’s project for a new house on their estate near Greenwich, Connecticut. They happened upon an ad in an English magazine for a half-timbered Tudor manor house in Ipswich dating to 1597. They loved it. They had it taken apart and shipped it back to the U.S. in 688 packing cases, then reassembled by a crew of workmen they imported from England at the same time.

What was it like to be a Stokes growing up circa 1870s in Manhattan?

It must have felt to Newton as if he owned the town – because in a very real sense his family did. An immense chunk of property, basically all of Murray Hill, on the east side of the city, comprised a major family holding. Newton was born in the brownstone mansion on 37th Street and Madison that later would be purchased by JP Morgan and now anchors the northern end of the Morgan Library and Museum.

Was there a part of the story that especially intrigued you?

In the course of his research, Newton made an amazing discovery in a castello belonging to the Medici family in Florence. Somehow, and no one knew quite how, a sheaf of antique maps included what came to be known as “The Castello Plan,” the first ever street plan of Manhattan. It had been created in 1660 by a surveyor named Jacques Cortelyou under the auspices of the West India Company. The map, together with all the information Stokes dug up using census and other data, brought the fledgling colony alive as nothing else ever has.

Did you visit any of Newton’s favorite haunts while researching the book?

I wrote some of my book in the place where he worked on the Iconography – the Research Library at 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. Stokes had a hideaway study on the 2nd floor of the library – it still exists, configured much the same as it did then. I am sure he was as inspired by this temple of learning then as was I when I went to work in the Allen Room, a secluded oasis for authors, just down the hall.

How did you research the lives of this determinedly private family?

I.N. Phelps Stokes penned a detailed memoir, called “Random Recollections of a Happy Life,” which was never published but which he distributed to family and friends. Also, 36 boxes of papers at the New-York Historical Society and 35 at the New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives division open a window to the Stokes world. And as private as the Stokes and Minturn families were, they couldn’t keep themselves out of the newspapers entirely!

What drew Newton and Edith together? What made them fall in love and stay in love for so many years, despite their differences?

Mutual respect and a shared love of tradition, of the past that was rapidly disappearing, and the sacredness of art.

Did you have any surprises over the course of researching your book?

That this man who was so serious as a passionate collector, art lover and social reformer also held the patent on an invention of his called Suspenderettes.