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Chapter 6: Samuel Ward and the Astors

My first peep at the great world in grown-up days was at a dinner party given by a daughter of General Armstrong, married to the eldest son of the first John Jacob Astor. Mrs. Astor was a person of very elegant taste. She had received a part of her education in Paris, at the time when her father represented our government at the Court of France. Her notions of propriety in dress were very strict. According to these, jewels were not to be worn in the daytime. Glaring colors and striking contrasts were to be avoided. Much that is in favor to-day would have been ruled out by her as inadmissible. At the dinner of which I speak the ladies were in evening dress, which in those days did not transcend modest limits. One very pretty married lady wore a white turban, which was much admired. Another lady was adorned with a coronet of fine stone cameos,—which has recently been presented to the Boston Art Museum by a surviving member of her family.

My head was dressed for this occasion by Martel, [65] a dainty half Spanish or French octoroon, endowed with exquisite taste, a ready wit, and a saucy tongue. He was the Figaro of the time, and his droll sayings were often quoted among his lady customers. The hair was then worn low at the back of the head, woven into elaborate braids and darkened with French pomade, while an ornament called a feroniere was usually worn upon the forehead or just above it. This was sometimes a string of pearls with a diamond star in the middle, oftener a gold chain or band ornamented with a jewel. The fashion, while it prevailed, was so general that evening dress was scarcely considered complete without it.

Not long after the dinner party just mentioned, my eldest brother married the eldest daughter of the Astor family. I officiated at the wedding as first bridesmaid, a sister of the bride and one of my own completing the number. The bride wore a dress of rich white silk, and was coiffed with a scarf of some precious lace, in lieu of a veil. On her forehead shone a diamond star, the gift of her grandfather, Mr. John Jacob Astor. The bridesmaids' dresses were of white moire, then a material of the newest fashion. I had begged my father to give me a feroniere for this occasion, and he had presented me with a very pretty string of pearls, having a pearl pansy and drop in the centre. This fashion, I afterwards [66] learned, was very ill suited to the contour of my face. At the time, however, I had the comfort of supposing that I looked uncommonly well. The ceremony took place in the evening at the house of the bride's parents. A very elaborate supper was afterwards served, at which the first groomsman proposed the health of the bride and groom, which was drunk without response. A wedding journey was not a sine qua non in those days, but a wedding reception was usual. In this instance it took the form of a brilliant ball, every guest being in turn presented to the bride. On the floor of the ball-room a floral design had been traced in colored chalks. The evening was at its height when my father gravely admonished me that it was time to go home. Paternal authority was without appeal in those days.

In my character of bridesmaid, I was allowed to attend one or two of the entertainments given in honor of this marriage. The gayeties of New York were then limited to balls, dinners, and evening parties. The afternoon tea was not invented until a much later period. One or two extra élegantes received on stated afternoons. My dear uncle John, taking up a card left for me, with the inscription, ‘Mrs. S. at home on Thursday afternoon,’ remarked, ‘At home on Thursday afternoon? I am glad to learn that she is so domestic.’ This lady, who was a leading personage [67] in the social world, used also to receive privileged friends on one evening in the week, giving only a cup of chocolate and some cakes or biscuits.

My eldest brother, Samuel Ward, the fourth of the same name, has been so well known, both in public and in private life, that my reminiscences would not be complete without some special characterization of him. In my childhood he was my ideal and my idol. A handsome youth, quick of wit and tender of heart, brilliant in promise, and with a great and versatile power of work in him, I doubt whether Round Hill School ever turned out a more remarkable pupil.

From Round Hill my brother passed to Columbia College, graduating there from after a four years course. His mathematical attainments were considered remarkable, and my father, desiring to give him the best opportunity of extending his studies, sent him to Europe before he had attained his majority, with a letter of credit whose amount the banker, Hottinguer, thought it best not to impart to the young student, so much did he consider it beyond his needs.

My brother's career in Europe, where he spent some years at this time, was not altogether in accordance with the promise of his early devotion to mathematical science. He saw much of German student life, and studied enough to obtain a [68] degree from the University of Tubingen. Before his departure from America he had written two articles for the ‘North American Review.’ One of these was on Locke's ‘Essay on the Human Understanding,’ the other on Euler's works. In Paris, he became the intimate friend of the famous critic, Jules Janin, and made acquaintance with other literary men of the time. He returned to America in 1835, speaking French like a Parisian and German as fluently as if that had been his native language. He had purchased a great part of the scientific library of La Grange, and an admirable collection of French and German works. At this period, he desired to make literature, rather than science, the leading pursuit of his life. He devoted much time to the composition of a work descriptive of Paris. He wrote many chapters of this in French, and I was proud to be allowed to render them into English. He brought into the Puritanic limits of our family circle a flavor of European life and culture which greatly delighted me.

My brother had spent a great deal of money while in Europe, and my father, who had done so much for him, began to think it time that this darling of fortune should take steps to earn his own support. The easiest way for him to accomplish this was to accept a post in the banking house of Prime, Ward and King, with the prospect of [69] partnership later. He decided, with some reluctance, to pursue this course. His first day's performance at the office was so faulty that my father, on reviewing it, exclaimed, ‘You will play the very devil with the check-book, sir, if you use it in this way.’ He, however, applied himself diligently to his office work, and soon mastered its difficulties, but without developing a taste for business pursuits. Literature was still his ruling passion, and he devoted such leisure as he could command to study and to the composition of several lectures, which he delivered with some success.

I have already spoken of his marriage with a daughter of Mr. William B. Astor. This union, a very happy one, was not of long duration. After a few years of married life, he was left a widower, with a daughter still in infancy, who became the especial charge and darling of my sister Louisa.

After an interval of some years, my brother married Miss Grimes of New Orleans, a lady of uncommon beauty and talent. In the mean time we had to mourn the death of our beloved father, whose sober judgment and strong will had exercised a most salutary influence upon my brother's sanguine temperament. He now became anxious to increase his income; and this anxiety led him to embark in various speculations, which were not always fortunate. He left the firm of Prime, [70] Ward and King, and was one of the first who went to California after its cession to the United States.

The Indians were then in near proximity to San Francisco, and Uncle Sam, as he came to be called, went much among them, and became so well versed in their diverse dialects as to be able to act as interpreter between tribes unacquainted with each other's forms of speech. He once wrote out and sent me some tenses of an Indian verb which had impressed him with its resemblance to corresponding parts of the Greek language. I showed this to Theodore Parker, who considered it remarkable, and at once caused my brother to be elected as a member of some learned association devoted to philological research.

An anecdote of his experience with the Indians may be briefly narrated here. He had been passing some time at a mining camp in the neighborhood of an Indian settlement, and had entered into friendly relations with the principal chief of the tribe. Thinking that a trip to San Francisco would greatly amuse this noble savage, he with some difficulty persuaded the elders of the tribe to allow their leader to accompany him to the city, where they had no sooner landed than the chief slipped out of sight and could not be found. Several days passed without any news of him, although advertisements were soon posted and a [71] liberal reward offered to any one who should discover his whereabouts. My brother and his party were finally obliged to return to camp without him. This they did very unwillingly, knowing that the chief's prolonged absence would arouse the suspicions of his followers that he had met with ill-treatment.

And so indeed it proved. Soon after their arrival at the settlement they were told that the Indians were becoming much excited, and that a council and war-dance were in preparation. The whites, a handful of men, armed themselves, and were preparing to sell their lives dearly, when suddenly the chief himself appeared among them. The Indians were pacified and the whites were overjoyed. The fugitive gave the following explanation of his strange conduct. He had been much alarmed by the noises heard on board the steamer, which he seemed to have mistaken for a living creature. ‘He must be sick, he groans so!’ was his expression. Resolving that he would not return by that means of conveyance, he had found for himself a hiding-place on a hill commanding a view of the harbor. From this height of vantage he was able to observe the movements of the party which had brought him to the city. When he saw the men reembark on the steamer, he felt himself secure from recapture, and managed to steal a horse and to find [72] his way back to his own people. If his misunderstanding of the nature of the boat should seem improbable, we must remember the Highlander who picked up a watch on some battlefield, and the next day sold it for a trifle, averring that ‘the creature had died in the night.’

During the period of the civil war, my brother resided in Washington, where his social gifts were highly valued. His sympathies were with the Democratic party, but his friendships went far beyond the limits of partisanship. He had an unusual power of reconciling people who were at variance with each other, and the dinners at which he presided furnished occasions to bring face to face political opponents accustomed to avoid each other, but unable to resist the bon- homie which sought to make them better friends. He became known as King of the Lobby, but much more as the prince of entertainers. Although careful in his diet, he was well versed in gastronomics, and his menus were wholly original and excellent. He had friendly relations with the diplomats who were prominent in the society of the capital. Lord Rosebery and the Duke of Devonshire were among his friends, as were also the late Senator Bayard and President Garfield.

Quite late in life, he enjoyed a turn of good fortune, and was most generous in his use of the wealth suddenly acquired, and alas! as suddenly [73] lost. His last visit to Europe was in 1882-83, when, after passing some months with Lord and Lady Rosebery, he proceeded to Rome to finish the winter with our sister, Mrs. Terry. In his travels he had contracted a fatal disease, and his checkered and brilliant career came to an end at Pegli, near Genoa, in the spring of 1884. Of his oft contemplated literary work there remains a volume of poems entitled ‘Literary Recreations.’ The poet Longfellow, my brother's lifelong friend and intimate, esteemed these productions of his as true poetry, and more than once said to me of their author, ‘He is the most lovable man that I have ever known.’ I certainly never knew one who took so much delight in giving pleasure to others, or whose life was so full of natural, overflowing geniality and beneficence.

Shortly after his first marriage my brother and his bride came to reside with us. In their company I often visited the Astor mansion, which was made delightful by good taste, good manners, and hospitable entertainment.

Mr. William B. Astor, the head of the family, was a rather shy and silent man. He had received the best education that a German university could offer. The Chevalier Bunsen had been his tutor, and Schopenhauer, then a student at the same university, had been his friend. He had a love for letters, and might perhaps have followed [74] this natural leading to advantage, had he not become his father's man of business, and thus been forced to devote much of his life to the management of the great Astor estate. At the time of which I speak, he resided on the unfashionable side of Broadway, not far below Canal Street.

At this time I was often invited to the house of his father, Mr. John Jacob Astor. This house, which the old gentleman had built for himself, was situated on Broadway, between Prince and Spring streets. Adjoining it was one which he had built for a favorite granddaughter, Mrs. Boreel. He was very fond of music, and sometimes engaged the services of a professional pianist. I remember that he was much pleased at recognizing, one evening, the strains of a brilliant waltz, of which he said: ‘I heard it at a fair in Switzerland years ago. The Swiss women were whirling round in their red petticoats.’ On another occasion, we sang the well-known song, ‘Am Rhein;’ and Mr. Astor, who was very stout and infirm of person, rose and stood beside the piano, joining with the singers. ‘Am Rhein, am Rhein, da wachset susses Leben,’ he sang, instead of ‘Da wachsen unsere Reben.’

My sister-in-law, Emily Astor Ward, was endowed with a voice whose unusual power and beauty had been enhanced by careful training. We sometimes sang together or separately at [75] old Mr. Astor's musical parties, and at one of these he said to us, as we stood together: ‘You are my singing birds.’ Of our two repertoires, mine was the most varied, as it included French and German songs, while she sang mostly operatic music. The rich volume of her voice, however, carried her hearers quite away. Her figure and carriage were fine, and in her countenance beauty of expression lent a great charm to features which in themselves were not handsome.

Although the elder Astor had led a life mainly devoted to business interests, he had great pleasure in the society of literary men. Fitz-Greene Halleck and Washington Irving were familiar visitors at his house, and he conceived so great a regard for Dr. Joseph Green Cogswell as to insist upon his becoming an inmate of his family. He finally went to reside with Mr. Astor, attracted partly by the latter's promise to endow a public library in the city of New York. This was accomplished after some delay, and the doctor was for many years director of the Astor Library.

He used to relate some humorous anecdotes of excursions which he made with Mr. Astor. In the course of one of these, the two gentlemen took supper together at a hotel recently opened. Mr. Astor remarked: ‘This man will never succeed.’

‘Why not?’ inquired the other. [76]

‘Don't you see what large lumps of sugar he puts in the sugar bowl?’

Once, as they were walking slowly to a pilot-boat which the old gentleman had chartered for a trip down the harbor, Dr. Cogswell said: ‘Mr. Astor, I have just been calculating that this boat costs you twenty-five cents a minute.’ Mr. Astor at once hastened his pace, reluctant to waste so much money.

In his own country Mr. Astor had been a member of the German Lutheran Church. He once mentioned this fact to a clergyman who called upon him in the interest of some charity. The visitor congratulated Mr. Astor upon the increased ability to do good, which his great fortune gave him. ‘Ah!’ said Mr. Astor, ‘the disposition to do good does not always increase with the means.’ In the last years of his life he was afflicted with insomnia. Dr. Cogswell often sat with him through a great part of the night, the coachman, William, being also in attendance. In these sleepless nights, his mind appeared to be much exercised with regard to a future state. On one of these occasions, when Dr. Cogswell had done his best to expound the theme of immortality, Mr. Astor suddenly said to his servant: ‘William, where do you expect to go when you die?’ The man replied: ‘Why, sir, I always expected to go where the other people went.’ [77]

Young as my native city was in my youth, it still retained some fossils of an earlier period. Conspicuous among these were two sisters, of whom the elder had been a recognized beauty and belle at the time of the War of Independence.

Miss Charlotte White was what was called ‘a character’ in those days. She was tall and of commanding figure, attired after an ancient fashion, but with great care. I remember her calling upon my aunt one morning, in company with a lady friend much inclined to embonpoint. The lady's name was Euphemia, and Miss White addressed her thus: ‘Feme, thou female Falstaff.’ She took some notice of me, and began to talk of the gayeties of her youth, and especially of a ball given at Newport during the war, at which she had received especial attention.

On returning the visit we found the sisters in the quaintest little sitting-room imaginable, the floor covered with a green Brussels carpet, woven in one piece, with a medallion of flowers in the centre, evidently manufactured to order. The furniture was of enameled white wood. We were entertained with cake and wine.

The younger of the sisters was much afraid of lightning, and had devised a curious little refuge to which she always betook herself when a thunderstorm appeared imminent. This was a wooden platform standing on glass feet, with a seat and a [78] silken canopy, which the good lady drew closely around her, remaining thus enveloped until the dreaded danger was past.

My father sometimes endeavored to overcome my fear of lightning by taking me up to the cupola of our house, and bidding me admire the beauty of the storm. Wishing to impress upon me the absurdity of giving way to fear, he told me of a lady whom he had known in his youth who, being overtaken by a thunderstorm at a place of public resort, so lost her head that she seized the wig of a gentleman standing near her, and waved it wildly in the air, to his great wrath and discomfiture I am sorry to say that this dreadful warning provoked my laughter, but did not increase my courage.

The years of mourning for my father and beloved brother being at an end, and the sister next to me being now of an age to make her debut in society, I began with her a season of visiting, dancing, and so on. My sister was very handsome, and we were both welcome guests at fashionable entertainments.

I was passionately fond of music, and scarcely less so of dancing, and the history of the next two winters would, if written, chronicle a series of balls, concerts, and dinners.

I did not, even in these years of social routine, abandon either my studies or my hope of contributing [79] to the literature of my generation. Hours were not then unreasonably late. Dancing parties usually broke up soon after one o'clock, and left me fresh enough to enjoy the next day's study.

We saw many literary people and some of the scientists with whom my brother had become acquainted while in Europe. Among the first was John L. O'Sullivan, the accomplished editor of the ‘Democratic Review.’ When the poet Dana visited our city, he always called upon us, and we sometimes had the pleasure of seeing with him his intimate friend, William Cullen Bryant, who very rarely appeared in general society.

Among our scientific guests I especially remember an English gentleman who was in those days a distinguished mathematician, and who has since become very eminent. He was of the Hebrew race, and had fallen violently in love with a beautiful Jewish heiress, well known in New York. His wooing was not fortunate, and the extravagance of his indignation at its result was both pathetic and laughable. He once confided to me his intention of paying his addresses to the lady's young niece. ‘And Miss— shall become our Aunt Hannah!’ he said, with extreme bitterness.

I exhorted him to calm himself by devotion to his scientific pursuits, but he replied: ‘Something [80] better than mathematics has waked up here!’ pointing to his heart. He wrote many verses, which he read aloud to our sympathizing circle. I recall from one of these a distich of some merit. Speaking of his fancied wrongs, and warning his fair antagonist to beware of the revenge which he might take, he wrote:—

Wine gushes from the trampled grape,
Iron's branded into steel.

In the end he returned to the science which had been his first love, and which rewarded his devotion with a wide reputation.

These years glided by with fairy-like swiftness. They were passed by my sisters and myself under my brother's roof, where the beloved uncle also made his home with us so long as we remained together.

I have dwelt a good deal on the circumstances and surroundings of my early life in my native city. If this state of things here described had continued, I should probably have remained a frequenter of fashionable society, a musical amateur, and a dilettante in literature.

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