New York was emblematic of the brash new nation that America was becoming in the nineteenth century; its association with the forces of change and industry made it a target during the American Civil War.
By late 1864, the South was losing the war and General William T. Sherman’s army had captured Atlanta. In November of that year, a desperate Confederate plot to destroy the city by setting fire to ten hotels was only foiled by the quick action of the hotel employees, and by New York’s heroic volunteer firemen who rapidly put out the flames.
The Confederates wanted to destroy New York because it was a symbol of all that they loathed about the North. Bristling and boastful with success, the city encouraged the dynamic creation of riches as well as their ostentatious display. The wealthy of New York were among the wealthiest in America, and in the period leading up to the Civil War many fortunes were made. The war then brought even more prosperity to the city, along with economic speculation. From the 1860s to the turn of the century, millionaires such as Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt cornered markets and influenced politicians, making colossal fortunes. Speculation became the lifeblood of the city and brokerage houses on Wall Street the means to fortune.
Leonard Jerome was born in 1818 on a farm at Pompey Hill, near Syracuse in western New York State. He was the fifth of eight brothers and had a sister, Mary. He was a restless and rebellious youth, much to his parents’ distress; they were proud of their Huguenot blood and of their forebears (one of whom had fought with George Washington at Valley Forge), and they encouraged their children to follow their stern, hard-working ways. The Jeromes came from a long line of pioneering ancestors. Timothy Jerome, the first to become an American, was a Protestant who had fled France in 1710 to England and had then sailed from the Isle of Wight in 1717 to settle in Connecticut. His son, Samuel had moved to Massachusetts; his son, Aaron, married Betsey Ball whose grandfather, Revd Elliphant Ball, was a cousin of Mary Ball, George Washington’s mother. George Washington had no lineal descendants. Leonard would later write to his wife, explaining the Jerome connection to the Washingtons, exclaiming: “We are the nearest of kin!” The eldest of Aaron’s sons was Isaac, Leonard’s father, who was born in 1786 and who married Aurora Murray, a woman of Scottish descent. After the war of 1812–15 against England, they settled at Pompey Hill and raised their family.
Leonard was sent to work in the village store at the age of fourteen, where he honed his commercial skills with the local farmers who paid in trade, rather than ready cash. He then left Pompey Hill to work for his uncle (who had become a judge) in Palmyra, a town sixty miles away. At eighteen, he followed his brothers to Princeton University, where his fees were paid by his elder brother Aaron, who had become a partner in a dry-goods firm. Although Leonard did well at Princeton, he had to leave when Aaron’s fortunes took a bad turn and finished his studies at the less expensive Union College, in Schenectady, New York State. Leonard then took up the law, first in Albany where he passed his Bar examinations, and then with his uncle Hiram in Palmyra. In the late 1830s Palmyra was a thriving, busy town with broad streets, many shops, and hotels lining the Erie Canal, with its painted packet boats passing by. Leonard became a partner in his uncle’s firm and was also appointed notary public for the county. With his increased prosperity he purchased 170 acres of land.
When Uncle Hiram moved the law practice to Rochester, New York, Leonard and his brother Lawrence, who also worked for the firm as a junior clerk, accompanied him. Rochester had grown into a town of 23,000 inhabitants, made prosperous by its position as a major shipping point for wheat. Its snobbish social elite was much preoccupied with entertainments, and in this milieu Leonard enjoyed an active social life. A Rochester socialite, the daughter of Samuel Wilder, later recorded that the Jerome brothers were ‘screamingly funny boys ” very popular with the ladies owing to the dashing manner in which they rode high-spirited horses’.
The brothers became men of importance in the town, and although not wealthy their prospects had improved since their early days. Lawrence married the orphaned heiress Catherine Hall in 1844, and Leonard cast his eye on her younger sister Clara. Like Catherine, Clara was a beauty with dark eyes and an oval face. Their father was the wealthy Ambrose Hall, who had inherited a fortune from his grandfather John Beach. The origins of their mother, Clarissa Wilcox, were shrouded in mystery; tales about her background have become part of family lore. One version has it that Clarissa’s mother, Anna Baker, was half Iroquois, something that Clara herself believed, for she later told her own daughters the same story, at a time when mixed blood was socially unacceptable. Her own dark looks and strong facial features suggested such ancestry, especially as she grew older. Clara’s other sister Caroline Purdy was, according to Clara Frewen’s son Hugh, “copper-skinned” and when she visited England in the early 1900s her daughter Kitty Mott kept her hidden “well behind the curtains’ to avoid unfavourable insinuations.
Another account suggested in fact that Clara’s grandmother was of African, rather than American Indian, ancestry, which would perhaps explain why these two wealthy Hall heiresses settled for the relatively impecunious Jerome brothers with their risky prospects. Clara’s fear of being said to have what were at that time even less acceptable African antecedents might also shed light on why she insisted on her Indian heritage. Most of the speculation about Clara Hall’s roots has focussed on the possibility of an Indian and not an African ancestry. However, in November 1912, Norman Leslie wrote to his mother Leonie – Clara Hall’s youngest daughter – of an encounter with a man who believed that his first cousin Winston Churchill, had black ancestry: “There is a gentleman on board who tells me in confidence that Winston isn’t half a bad fellow, but that he can’t help himself, owing to the black blood that he inherits from his Mother ” he has forgotten whether it was a quadroon or an octaroon, but he knew for certain that it was one of the two.”
Although Anna Baker’s family tree has been traced back to her grandparents, her grandmother’s maiden name is unknown, as is Anna’s date of birth. Two possibilities emerge: either Anna Baker was of mixed race; or she was raped, or had a relationship in Palmyra with either an Indian or an escaped slave that resulted in the birth of her daughter, Clarissa. Of course, it is possible that there is no truth to any of these rumours. None of them can be proved conclusively, but it is instructive to consider what people at the time thought to be true and how it affected their attitudes.
Clarissa Wilcox’s daughter, Clara Hall, certainly felt the stigma of the rumours. We also know that Clara’s own daughters, their spouses, and their children all believed the story of native American blood to be true. Later generations – including Jennie’s son Winston and Leonie’s children and grandchildren – thought it was quite exciting. (Her sons-in-law would later refer to her irreverently as ‘sitting Bull”.) What is indisputably clear, however, is that the rumours, whether true or not, help to explain Clara’s lifelong obsession with background and rank, and her desire to move among society’s highest echelons – an ambition that ultimately she was only able to achieve in Europe. The ‘shame” that she might be of mixed race was perhaps the decisive factor in what must have been a difficult decision to leave behind husband, home, and country, and to make a new life, as a single parent, among strangers, in foreign climes.
Clara Hall and Leonard Jerome married in 1849. Soon after, Leonard and his brother decided to leave their uncle’s law firm and establish a newspaper. Leonard borrowed $30,000 from his new wife to invest in his new paper, called the Daily American, and made it a great success. It was a time of swift development in the newspaper industry in the United States; weeklies and semi-weeklies published chiefly in rural towns expanded quickly, as did the metropolitan dailies. The latter were graphic, multiple (nine to ten editions a day), and hefty (twenty-four to thirty-six pages). In 1800 there were 150 papers; by 1870 this number had dramatically risen to 971, and by 1900 there were 2,226 published daily. The Daily American became renowned as a hard-hitting political journal that supported the Whig Party. The Whigs believed in a strong nation, as opposed to strong state control, and they supported national projects such as the building of roads, canals, and railroads. But the formation of the new Republican Party in the 1850s siphoned off many Whigs, and the party was also damaged by the short-lived Native American, or Know-Nothing Party, which was primarily anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. Until their disappearance in 1856, the Whigs had been especially strong in urban areas, such as Rochester. Sales of the Daily American grew rapidly, eventually reaching 3,000, an extraordinary figure for the time. Leonard was able to repay the loan and never again took money from his wife. Encouraged by the paper’s commercial success, he then invested in a telegraph company in New York. In order to be close to the new business venture, he sold his interest in the Daily American and in 1850 moved with his wife to Brooklyn.
At this time Brooklyn was an independent city, with a population of 120,000. It boasted thirty-five miles of paved and lighted streets. Streetcars would arrive just three years later, in 1853. Leonard rented a fifteen-room, red-brick house in a section later known as Brooklyn Heights, just a block from the East River. It was here that his first child was born on 15 April 1851: Clarita, blonde and blue-eyed, the only one who would physically resemble her father. Leonard’s elder brother Addison, who joined him as a partner in the new business, moved in with them, and the two men would set off each morning to cross the river by ferry to work on Wall Street.
Leonard eventually sold the telegraph business to work full time with Addison in stock-market speculation. He called Wall Street “a jungle where men tear and claw”, and threw himself into the work. He was determined to join the city’s millionaires – which at that time had been estimated at nineteen. Studies of American wealth (measured in contemporary dollar values) have concluded that there were approximately forty millionaires in the nation some ten years later, in 1860, and that this number grew to 545 in 1870, reaching 5,904 in 1922.8 Leonard proved successful at making money and achieved a Wall Street reputation for being a man who knew how to get things done. A friend remembered asking him one day how business was and received the reply: “Oh, dull, confoundedly dull. I have only made $25,000 [$340,000] today.” This was during the 1870s, when the well-known socialite and commentator Ward MacAllister later claimed that “there were not one or two men in New York who spent, in living and entertaining, over 60,000 dollars [$820,000] a year.”
Leonard’s speciality was selling ‘short”: that is, selling stock that he did not yet own, to be delivered to the purchaser at a specified future date. His calculation was that before that date the price of the stock would drop; he would then buy it at its lower price and make a profit when fulfilling the sale. In addition to the steady nerves and business acumen required for such speculation, Leonard also had wit and exuberance and was well liked. A contemporary recorded that Leonard “belonged to the city with all its garish brilliance”. No man, he stated, “ever became more completely a New Yorker”.
Leonard’s ambition grew with his income, but his wife, alone in Brooklyn with her young child, became increasingly lonely without his company. She was therefore pleased when he announced in 1852 that he was accepting the position of chief consul in Trieste, a Mediterranean port and at that time a city-state within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that she should make preparations for the move. Whilst Leonard often found himself impatient with those who had not “paid for their own education” and thought it ‘more important to think clearly in one idiom than to chatter in five”, he loved the opera (a visitor recorded that Leonard had gone to see Verdi’s new opera, Rigoletto, some thirty times) and also yachting. During their sixteen-month stay, he bought a pair of prize Lipizzaner stallions of which he was extremely proud. Leonard kept busy; he had also insisted that the family bring along one of his operatic prot”g”es, Lillie Greenough, so that she could, he claimed, study Italian singing techniques.
Clara found other amusements and was very taken with the large contingent of Italian nobility in Trieste. She was sorry that their stay was curtailed when Democratic President Franklin Pierce replaced the Whig President Millard Fillmore (the last Whig to hold this office) and Leonard resigned his position. Before leaving Trieste, the couple commissioned the Italian painter, Schiavoni, to paint their portraits, which were shipped to America, along with their collection of art and antiques. That summer, the family crossed Europe by horse-drawn coach, reaching Paris in the autumn, where Clara ordered new gowns from the various couturiers. Paris was being rebuilt by the new Emperor Louis Napoleon, who had commissioned gigantic boulevards, monuments, and columns. Clara loved the glamour and style. Leonard promised her that they would come back, but his eagerness to return to New York was unmistakable. The couple left Europe divided by their desires; Clara lived for the day she would return, while Leonard went home a committed American.
They arrived in New York in November 1853. Leonard was glad to be back in action. He and his brother Addison, whose brokerage firm had failed, bought a house in Brooklyn for their families and threw themselves into the Wall Street fray. Leonard was little interested in cultivating the cream of society, preferring to move within many overlapping circles, focussed on speculating and winning.
Nineteenth-century New York was a modern metropolis of crowded sidewalks and perpetual new building construction. The city’s remarkable geographical spread and structural growth accommodated both its nouveaux riches, keen to build mansions on Fifth Avenue, and the steady influx of poor immigrants, who were increasingly confined to the more insalubrious areas. By the 1860s, the wealthy of New York had moved farther uptown from the previously desirable downtown areas. The fashionable world occupied Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to the southern edge of Central Park. The poor, most of whom lived in appalling conditions, were pushed onto the outer rim of the island, along both sides of the river, and in tenements below 14th Street, described by the social commentator Jacob Riis as a ‘maze of narrow, often unsuspected passage-ways’ where entire communities existed in “an atmosphere of actual darkness, moral and physical”.
These two communities existed within fifteen minutes’ walk of one another, yet they rarely met. The financial speculators, such as Leonard and his brother Addison, made their money downtown, leaving the area at the end of the workday to spend their evenings at the exclusive clubs, restaurants and theatres farther uptown. Leonard loved music and was devoted to concerts and the opera. Clara, however, was not at all musical and rarely accompanied him. Leonard cultivated the operatic world with knowledge and enthusiasm, becoming intimate with some of its most famous singers, one of whom was the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind. Having rarely missed a performance during her concert tour in 1851, he suggested three years later that the new baby, born on 9 January 1854, be called Jenny. “Just plain Jenny?” queried Clara, clearly unaware of Leonard’s friendship. It was indeed just plain Jenny, or Jennie. It was rumoured that another talented singer, Minnie Hauk, who was born at about this time in New York City, was Leonard’s daughter from an early romance; certainly he was extremely protective of her and very generous. In 1862, Minnie and her mother returned to New York from New Orleans where Minnie had begun her musical training. Leonard sponsored her further musical development by paying for her to study under the famous Achille Errani. In September 1866, she made her operatic debut in Bellini’s La sonnambula at Leonard’s private theatre and on 13 October made her public debut in the same opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was the beginning of a long and successful operatic career. Clara, somewhat surprisingly, welcomed her with good grace, noting on the back of Minnie’s photograph: ‘so like Jennie, but less good-looking”. It was true that the two looked remarkably alike.
Leonard had become very wealthy. He purchased expensive jewellery for Clara, and encouraged her to buy only the finest gowns. In 1855, their third daughter, Camille, was born. Leonard continued to shower his wife with costly gifts and, after a particularly successful period, bought her a diamond necklace from the luxury jeweller Tiffany’s. Clara told him how she would love to be taken to a court so that she could show it off.
Moving in the right circles became Clara’s ambition. In this city of old families and wealthy nobodies, social climbing was rife, and she was anxious to cultivate the “right people”. Her family background allowed her admittance to some of New York’s elite society, but there was a scramble for the most hallowed circles, and families went to great lengths to gain entrance. The grandest New Yorkers were descendants of the original Dutch settlers, known as the Knickerbockers – named after their ancestors’ breeches. One of the most prominent of these was Mrs Astor, born Caroline Schermerhorn of an old Dutch shipping family, who married William Backhouse Astor, Jr, possessor of a more recent fortune. Mrs Astor, helped by the Southerner Ward McAllister, created a system that restricted access of the newly wealthy to the upper levels of society by establishing twenty-five “Patriarchs’ as the leading representative men of the city. The Patriarchs would host parties to which the “nobs’ – those socialites who were already members of the elite – and ‘swells’ – who had money, and needed access to its highest echelons – could be invited. The result was a list of society’s most esteemed members: the “Four Hundred” (a number that famously described the capacity of Mrs Astor’s ballroom).
The Jeromes were not part of the Four Hundred, and Clara felt it deeply. When Leonard lost his entire fortune in 1856 and decided to take a twelve months’ sabbatical from speculating in order to study Wall Street psychology, Clara was secretly relieved. They lived quietly for the following year and entertained their friends. These included Leonard’s two closest friends, the celebrated financier Henry Clews and August Belmont, with whom he shared a passion for spirited horses and spirited ladies. Belmont was born in Germany and had joined the House of Rothschild Bank at the age of fourteen. (There was a discredited rumour that he was an illegitimate son of that dynasty). Following early success in his career, he was sent to America as the Rothschilds’ agent and did so well that he was able, with their blessing, to set up his own banking house in 1837. He became one of the few Jews to enter the portals of elite New York society and firmly secured his place on the social map by fighting a duel in 1841 with Edward Hatward of South Carolina. The slight limp with which he was left, after honour had been satisfied, was a source of pride for the rest of his life. In 1849 he married Caroline Slidell Perry, daughter of a US Navy commodore, and he later rendered sterling service to the North during the civil war. Belmont became known as an art collector, a noted connoisseur of horseflesh, and a ‘somewhat rakish man about town”. He was a perfect match for Leonard Jerome; he, together with Clews, William Travers, and Lawrence Jerome, formed Leonard’s tight circle. All five men loved playing the financial markets and embodied the spirit of swashbuckling New York.
Clara may have been relieved by a respite from Leonard’s absorption in the stock market, but he was not. He suffered privately from the loss of his reputation as one of Wall Street’s ‘meteors’ and the following year threw himself back into the market with his firm Travers Jerome. He was immediately successful, multiplying his capital many times over, and made arrangements to fulfil his dream of owning a racing stud. He also increased the fund he had settled on his wife; built a seaside villa for the family in Newport; and purchased a yacht so he could sail there to visit them. Leonard made so much money that he was able to satisfy Clara’s demand for a trip to Europe. The family sailed to France in 1858, renting an apartment in Paris on the Champs Elys’es.
Clara fulfilled her dreams of mingling with royalty when she was presented at the court of the Empress Eug”nie while Leonard pursued the ladies with golden voices whom he met through operas and concerts. In spite of his amours, he was proud of his beautiful wife and wrote to his brother of her success at the Grand Ball at the Tuileries: “It was universally acknowledged that Clit [Clara] was the handsomest woman there.” He added that he “never saw her look so well”. Clara still hoped for a son, but in August 1859, she gave birth to their fourth and last child, a daughter named Leonie.
Clara was delighted with Parisian society. Like most of the French aristocracy, she was unconcerned by Louis Napoleon’s war with Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Determined to emulate his uncle Napoleon I by extending France’s influence and frontiers, Louis Napoleon would lead his nation into four wars during the nearly eighteen years he was emperor, but his military achievements were not very impressive. After the Crimean War, he engaged in a conflict with Austria, winning several decisive battles at Magenta and Solferino, but the overall result of this ill-thought-out campaign was not a clear victory for France. It did not seem to matter. In Paris, his court was characterized by frivolity. The aristocracy ignored the military conflicts as well as the hardships of everyday life in France, concentrating instead on their own amusements.
The superficial life suited Clara; she liked being known as “la belle Am”ricaine” and pleaded with her husband to be allowed to stay in her adopted city. But Leonard was not persuaded. “Paris is not as agreeable to me as New York,” he had written to his brother, adding that he believed that he would spend his next summer on the Isle of Wight instead. Also, he could not remain away from his business indefinitely and in 1859 the family returned to New York. Leonard’s financial touch was once again so sure that he was able to build the six-storey mansion he had long promised his wife on a plot of land in the newly fashionable area of Madison Square and 23rd Street.
By 1860 New York City was the nation’s largest city, with a population of some 500,000, yet Fifth Avenue was still unpaved north of 23rd Street, and most of Manhattan was still rolling farmland. But the area was transformed into a desirable address through the addition of Delmonico’s chic restaurant, and the building of the magnificent Fifth Avenue Hotel – complete with elevator (a great novelty at the time). Leonard had designed his mansion on the Square to accommodate his passions; it contained a private theatre and an adjacent three-storey stable, built and carpeted and pannelled in black walnut at a cost of $80,000 (an astonishing $900,000 today). Clara, whilst happy with her palatial residence, with its white and gold ballroom and its huge drawing room decorated in flaming red, was nevertheless less pleased by her husband’s obsession with horses. More worrying still were the singers whom he indulged with his private theatre, which could seat a staggering 600 people. At the Jeromes’ opening ball, champagne flowed from one fountain and reviving eau de cologne from another. One guest present at the magnificent party recorded: “Invitations were eagerly sought by the 400 of the day, and all the wealth and fashion and beauty of the metropolis took part in the dance ” The front of the theatre was illuminated and the sidewalls covered with crimson tapestry. The Supper must have cost thousands.”
Leonard’s energy and high spirits seduced all who knew him. He entertained with panache, financed by his massive stock market earnings. With his friend August Belmont, he took pleasure in a friendly competition to see who could have the best horses, the best dinners, and even the best love affairs. Dinners were celebrated in style, usually at Delmonico’s, where William Travers, August Belmont, and Leonard constantly tried to outdo one another. Leonard’s gift of a gold bracelet with an attached jewel for each lady at one such dinner was eclipsed by Belmont’s platinum favours at the next, but the result was usually judged to be a dead heat all round. Leonard and Belmont also competed for the attentions of Fanny Ronalds, a Boston divorcee with musical talent and good looks. Both men helped her financially; Leonard showed her how to manage horses and put his theatre at her disposal. Belmont and Jerome also shared the honour of each paying – unknown to the other – for a ball given by Fanny that was one of the most spectacular of the season. Their friend Frank Griswold recorded a conversation the two men held some twenty years after the event: “”August,” said Jerome, ‘do you remember Fanny’s celebrated ball?”
“Indeed I ought to,” replied Belmont. “I paid for it.”
“Why how very strange,” said Jerome slowly, ‘so did I.”” Mrs Ronalds was also loved by the Jerome girls and became a favourite of the family. Even Clara Jerome was moved to tell her when they first met: “I don’t blame you. I know how irresistible he is.” Jennie and Fanny would remain friends all their lives; she recalled many years later how Fanny had sung to the girls in the evening before bed.
Leonard spent his gains on entertaining lavishly and bought more pieces of jewellery for Clara, which in late nineteenth-century New York City became an increasingly fashionable and ostentatious way to display wealth. By the early 1900s, three Vanderbilt wives owned jewels valued at over $1 million (over $21 million today), as did the daughter-in-law of the wealthy speculator Jay Gould. Clara enjoyed her diamonds and gowns – which were now so numerous that they required an inventory – and turned a dignified blind eye to her husband’s many, and indiscreet, affairs. One of Leonard’s prot”g”es was the seventeen-year-old singer Adeline Patti, who was often seen riding with him through the city in one of his magnificent carriages.
Although Clara wished to please her husband, it is clear that she had a limited ability to empathize with his interests. Her main preoccupation was with appearances – clothes, accessories, and interiors were what mattered to her – and her ambitions were entirely social. She filled her mind and heart with gossip and social chatter and, with the exception of art, had few passions. She was unmusical, afraid of horses, mistrustful of sport, and disliked boats. Clara loved the European aristocracy – an elite focussed completely on savoir vivre, the triumph of sumptuous style over substance. She yearned to return to France, where a glittering social season beckoned. But Leonard would not yield; his home and business were firmly anchored in New York.
The outbreak of the civil war in 1861 brought great opportunities as well as strife to New York City’s business community. Along with other rich New Yorkers, the Jeromes were able to maintain their extravagant lifestyle. Although Leonard and his partners were not in any sense profiteers, they, like many Northern businessmen, took a determined supporting stance for Republican President Lincoln. Through their ownership of one quarter of the New York Times newspaper, they thundered approval for the Unionist anti-slavery position. Many North-eastern businessmen also supported Lincoln and the war because they believed that the once-dominant power of planter agrarians in the South would be reduced; also that that of the “captains of industry” in the North would be elevated. The wartime Republican Congress was committed to honouring its business-friendly platform promises made in 1860, which consolidated the interests of North-eastern businessmen and Western farmers. Leonard, was fully committed to the Unionist cause. He became treasurer of the Union Defence Committee and continued his brokerage activities. He also contributed $35,000 to the construction of the warship Meteor and acted as an adviser to the government on its proposed National Banking Act, which helped to finance the war as well as creating a uniform system of banking and banknote currency.
The human costs of the war extended beyond the immediate hostilities. In March 1863 there were riots in working-class sections of New York City, in response to the First Conscription Act, which made all men aged between twenty and forty-five liable for military service. Because this service could be avoided by paying a fee or by finding a substitute, it was unfair to the poor and led to violent protests, culminating in the Draft Riots of July 1863. The police could not control the mob which, armed with torches, guns, and pikes, looted the city and terrorized black Americans (whom they blamed for the war). Leonard manned one of the two new machine-guns provided by the army to defend the New York Times building. Luckily, the mob turned away when they heard of the guns. Leonard later started a fund to aid the families of those killed and wounded in the Draft Riots, a characteristically generous gesture from this civic-minded man.
Throughout the four bitter years of the conflict, life in New York for society’s elite went on much as before, only occasionally troubled by its impact. Clara and the girls spent much of the war in Newport, in the villa Leonard had purchased where the children could, as Jennie later wrote in her memoirs, “run wild and be as grubby and happy as children ought to be”. Jennie recollected that the great struggle of the civil war had “passed our nursery unmolested”, but that she could remember “that every little Southerner I met at dancing classes was a “wicked rebel” to be pinched if possible”.
The period following the end of the war was one of reconstruction and reconciliation. The attempt by the Southern states to secede from the Union had failed, and the bloodshed had profoundly shaken the nation. Over 600,000 lives had been lost, and the Southern economy was all but destroyed. The financial cost of the war was estimated at $5.2 billion (over $57 billion in today’s money). The South had been battered and humiliated, but American nationalism was triumphant, and 4 million slaves were subsequently freed by ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865. On the heels of the victory, President Abraham Lincoln, so closely identified with the cause of the North and the abolition of slavery, was assassinated on 11 April 1865, five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox, Virginia. The entire city of New York went into public mourning. Jennie recalled that their house was ‘draped from top to bottom in white and black”, and that the whole city had the appearance of “one gigantic mausoleum”. Men and women sobbed openly in the streets. On 24 April 1865, even the poorest New Yorkers bought tiny flags, with bits of cr”pe attached, to honour their president, who lay in City Hall before being taken to Springfield, Illinois for burial.
New York City had given 15,000 men and $4 million to the Northern cause. Despite these losses, the civil war had stimulated the city’s economy and business was booming. This prosperity was underpinned by New York’s rapidly growing immigrant population, which supplied cheap labour, as well as votes for unscrupulous politicians. Corruption scandals followed. City politics were well known to be suspect. One of the most notorious and dishonest offenders, William Marcy Tweed, once famously declared that the corruptness of New York politics was nothing new:
“The fact is that New York politics were always dishonest – long before my time. There never was a time when you couldn’t buy the board of aldermen. A politician coming forward takes things as they are. This population is too hopelessly split up into races and factions to govern it under universal suffrage, except by the bribery of patronage or corruption ” I don’t think there is ever a fair or honest election in New York.”
This was almost certainly true. Tweed was an example of how New York’s booming economic development, coupled with the population’s general lack of interest in the political process, could allow corruption to flourish. He had worked his way up to the New York county board of supervisors, where he established what was known as the “Tweed Ring”. Every contractor, craftsman or merchant wishing to do business with New York City had to pay Tweed and his henchmen 15 per cent of their total bill before the board of supervisors would grant them a contract. Tweed dominated the board (which was supposedly even-handed because it included six Democrats and six Republicans) by bullying and bribing the other members. He was extraordinarily successful; he ‘served” on the board for thirteen years and was elected president four times. “Boss’ Tweed also determined party nominations, while his ward leaders controlled elections through intimidation and bribery. Many voters were Irish or German, and judges who were controlled by Tweed would naturalize thousands of the immigrant population in return for their votes. The Irish voter in particular was targeted, and Tweed’s acolytes would go to meet newly arrived immigrants from their ships with promises of citizenship.
The main reason that Tweed’s corrupt practices were so successful was that most New Yorkers were simply uninterested in the political process. Making money was what mattered, and merchant capitalism was the ruling creed. By 1869 Tweed was stealing more than $1,000,000 (worth around $13 million in today’s money) a month from the city treasury. He was finally arrested in 1871 and, after his trial, was sentenced to a twelve-year prison term. One year later he was released and then rapidly rearrested on further corruption charges. Tweed escaped custody in 1875 and fled to Cuba, then to Spain. He was extradited to the United States in 1876 and died in a New York jail cell in 1878. In all, it was estimated that he and his cronies had stolen about $30 million (about $411 million today) in cash, and when the total loss to the city was calculated – taking into account money paid in bribes, tax cuts for rich men, profit from the rigged sale of franchises, and the sale of other privileges – it was probably more in the region of $200 million (about $2.7 billion in today’s values). This was at a time when Tweed’s constituents and supporters – recent immigrants and poor, largely unskilled workers – were lucky to earn $10 (equivalent to around $137 today) a week.
Such was the business environment in which Leonard made his millions. Speculation requires information, and gathering information and developing relationships were skills at which Leonard excelled. Consequently, he prospered as a financial investor in New York’s swashbuckling atmosphere, where his newly minted money was welcomed and celebrated. Although he was by most accounts an honest man – a rival was once quoted as saying: “That damn fellow has cashed in on honesty” – he could not have made his fortune without a working relationship with Tweed, which raises doubts as to his financial probity. Leonard and Lawrence (known as Larry) worked closely with the rich and powerful financier Commodore Vanderbilt. In turn Vanderbilt worked with Tweed, as did the Jerome brothers and Leonard’s great friend, August Belmont. Indeed, Tweed was Leonard’s guest at the 1867 opening of his racecourse. Larry’s rather dour and stern wife Catherine once commented disapprovingly that the “Jeromes seem to have so much sense of honor and hardly any sense of sin.” Leonard’s generosity was legendary and he spent with alacrity rather than saving. Yet he was also prepared for losses on the market. Although he was reputed to have made three $1 million fortunes (each worth $13 million today), he also lost as much in speculation.
All three girls adored their successful father, and he set a standard they would each seek in their future husbands. It was a high benchmark: Leonard’s wit, intelligence, and drive were matched by his sporting prowess and his musical talent and appreciation. But his ability to make and lose fortunes with equanimity engendered in his daughters a disregard for wealth that remained with them their entire lives. Leonard had a breezy insouciance about money that gave the girls an unrealistic understanding of the huge cost of maintaining an expensive lifestyle among society’s elite. He made finance seem easy and protected his wife from the downfalls of the market by settling a capital sum on her, so she was guaranteed a secure income for life. This was not the case for his daughters, who he believed (as it proved, erroneously) would be provided for by their husbands.
In 1863, the Jeromes suffered the loss of their third daughter, Camille, aged only seven, who died in Newport of a sudden fever. There is little record of this untimely death, and Jennie’s own memoirs only include the inaccurate comment that three children returned from Italy to New York in 1853 “one of whom died a year or two later”. (In fact it was only Clarita alone, who travelled with her parents; the other three were as yet unborn.) In an age before penicillin (which would not be discovered until 1928, by the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming), illnesses such as scarlet fever, meningitis, typhoid, and diphtheria killed thousands. Although there is no record of the family’s response to Camille’s death, both Leonard and Clara were devoted parents, and this tragedy must have caused them considerable anguish.
Leonard kept busy with work and, increasingly, his great passion for horses. As his fortune grew in the late 1860s and 1870s, much of his income was absorbed by the costs of stabling and horse racing. Belmont also had stables and together, in 1865, they created “The Coaching Club”, in an attempt to make four-in-hand driving fashionable once more. A reporter noted that Jerome had also trained his horses to “caper and rear as they turned in the street”. He added:
Gay and laughing ladies, in gorgeous costume, filled the carriage. Lackeys, carefully gotten up, occupied the coupe behind. Jerome sat on the box and handled the reins. With a huge bouquet of flowers attached to his buttonhole, with white gloves, cracking his whip, and with the shouts of the party, the four horses would rush up Fifth Avenue on towards the Park, while the populace said to one another, “That is Jerome”.
Organized horse racing was still in its infancy in New York. Although the first American racecourse had been laid out on Long Island in 1665, tracks were few and far between, and were mainly created by the rich to showcase their horses. After the civil war, however, entrepreneurs became involved in the sport and began to develop it as a profit-generating business by establishing public betting on the races. Jerome’s business partner, William Travers, and John Hunter founded a racetrack in the popular health resort of Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. Its inaugural race, run in 1864, was called the Travers and was to become the nation’s oldest stakes race.
Encouraged by this success, and no doubt with his competitive juices flowing, Leonard built an elaborate racetrack on his Bathgate estate in 1866 and named it Jerome Park. The Park contained a grandstand that seated 8,000 people, along with a luxurious clubhouse that included a ballroom, dining rooms, guest rooms and additional facilities for such pastimes as trapshooting, polo, sleighing, and skating. The new Park became the headquarters of the American Jockey Club, which was founded by Leonard and Larry, along with Belmont and Travers. Its guiding principles were, according to the founders, to “promote the improvement of horses, to elevate the public tastes in sports of the turf, and to become an authority on racing matters in the country”.
The opening of the track on 25 September 1866 was described by the New York Tribune as “the social event of all time ” a new era in the horse-racing world”. Guests included business associates Boss Tweed and his political agent John Morrissey, as well as friends such as Fanny Ronalds and presidential hopeful Ulysses S. Grant. It was at Jerome Park that the Belmont Stakes, named after Leonard’s close friend (who had also helped to finance the Park), was inaugurated on 19 June 1867. This famous race was later transferred to Belmont Park and is the third jewel in the Triple Crown.
Reporters began to call Leonard the “Father of the American Turf”. In 1884, he founded the Coney Island Jockey Club. He then built a new racecourse called Sheepshead Bay, which opened in 1884. When Jerome Park was pulled down to make room for a reservoir in 1887, Leonard built, with the help of thoroughbred owner and breeder John A. Morris, a new racetrack named Morris Park, which opened in Westchester County in 1889. Leonard passed on to each of his daughters an ability to ride with confidence as well as pleasure. As a girl, Jennie in particular spent as much time as she could in the stables. When budding opera singer Minnie Hauk stayed with the Jeromes in 1865 she was impressed by the sight of Clarita, aged fourteen, and Jennie, aged eleven, on horseback, recollecting in her memoirs: ‘mr Jerome possessed some beautiful saddle-horses and his daughters were in the habit of riding many miles before breakfast. They rode like Amazons.”
The girls also inherited their father’s musical ear. Leonard insisted that they learn the piano, and their first teacher was Stephen Heller, a friend of Chopin’s. These lessons, along with the excitement of rehearsals in their private theatre, stimulated in them a lifelong love of music. Their musical ability and disciplined practising habits enabled them to play the piano to concert level, a talent that Jennie and Leonie would put to use for charity fund-raising events in London in the 1890s and 1900s. An appreciation of classical music was a highly desirable social skill, one that gave them an entr”e into elite European circles.
By the time they reached adulthood, the girls had been meticulously groomed by their mother to enter the top ranks of society. As was the norm, Clarita, Jennie, and Leonie were raised by servants and were taught aristocratic manners in early childhood. They were forbidden to attend many social events with other children. Mrs Jerome’s instructions to the nursery prescribed a strict regime that included healthy food, light exercise, and a good night’s sleep; she believed that healthy women were beautiful women. The Jerome sisters were blessed with their father’s vitality and robust good health, and he approved of vigorous outdoor activities such as skating.
Mama preferred moderation. She taught her daughters that refined manners mattered, and that a harmonious home was the most important attainment for women of their class. She believed in forbearance, as both she and her sister Catherine found their husbands’ zest for life somewhat trying. Clara was living proof to her children that in order to hold a man it was necessary to tolerate lapses of conduct with dignity and discretion. She frequently told her girls to never scold a man, lest he should “go where he is not scolded”.
In addition to their mother’s social training, Leonard was insistent that his girls be well schooled and took a personal interest in their educational achievements. He encouraged them to study difficult subjects and scrutinized their academic timetables. He wrote to Jennie at her boarding school near Paris in 1868 that he had “great confidence in your capabilities and if I could have my way I would prescribe a higher order of studies than I fancy you have now. When I come out I shall examine into this.” He urged her to write to him frequently, as it was “an important branch of education in any body male or female” and “writing fixes ones ideas more distinctly in the mind and helps them amazingly to be remembered”.
Their father was proud of his daughters’ achievements and instigated academic competition between them. He told Jennie that her younger sister Leonie was good at mathematics and had “just solved the problem of 2 francs and a quarter an hour for 3 hours’; Jennie ‘must look out for your laurels’, as she had “a mighty smart sister coming on after you”. All three sisters developed excellent writing skills; Jennie was able to publish her written work later in life, in times of financial necessity, as indeed was her son, Winston. In her memoirs, Jennie described her early childhood days as happy ones, which included “a few eventful years of lessons, with matinees at the opera “to improve our minds,” sleighing and skating for pleasure”. On ‘red-letter days’ there would be a drive to Jerome Park.
Both Clara and Leonard Jerome, in their very different ways, instilled in their daughters the importance of elevated standards of achievement and self-control. Even in times of difficulty, their public face was to be gracious and decorous. When the Jeromes were not invited to Mrs Astor’s balls (Mrs Astor strongly disapproved of new money – the Goulds, the Harrimans, and the Morgans were never invited either), Clara decided to leave for Paris. She ignored Leonard’s philandering with dignity. Whilst Mama taught her daughters to be socially ambitious and to overlook marital indiscretions, their father taught them to be high achievers.
Clara was less preoccupied with savouring life’s experiences than her husband. Her situation was not easy: first orphaned, then married to a charismatic man whom she was unable to satisfy, and finally rejected by the top echelons of the very society she so desperately wished to join. It is perhaps unsurprising that Clara transferred her ambitions to the marriages of her daughters and sought to achieve through them what she was unable to attain for herself. In spite of a few exciting years of extravagance, Leonard never consolidated the kind of fortune Clara needed to feel truly secure. The really wealthy men of New York City, such as William B. Astor, Alexander T. Stewart, and Cornelius Vanderbilt, had amassed huge wealth from real estate, retailing, and railroads, worth tens of millions. Leonard did well from investing in the stock market, but the money ebbed and flowed, and he was never in their unassailable financial position. In a bad year, such as the New York Stock Market downturn of 1873, many incomes from speculation dropped, including Leonard’s, whose assets never really fully recovered.
The closest Clara could get, therefore, to grandeur and unqualified social success would be through her daughters. She became single-minded in her matrimonial ambitions for them and in 1867 decided to move them to Europe. Leonard, who would pay their substantial bills, would be welcome to visit whenever he wished. Thus Clarita, Jennie, and Leonie journeyed with their mother and father (who accompanied them) to Paris and the court of the Emperor Napoleon III at the height of the Second Empire. In Europe, their debuts in the royal courts would earn them a much-envied veneer of social success.
Copyright ” 2004 by Elisabeth Kehoe. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.