Thursday, February 23, 2012

The 1900 Stuyvesant Fish House -- No. 25 East 78th Street

The Fish house shortly after completion -- photo Library of Congress
Stuyvesant Fish, son of Hamilton Fish, came from one of the oldest and most prestigious families of New York.   Although his time was mainly taken up in the railroad industry, he was also involved with financial and insurance institutions such as the National Park Bank and the Mutual Life Insurance Company.

It was his wife, the former Marian G. Anthon, however, who stole the spotlight in the Fish household.

The couple was married on June 1, 1876 and would go on to share one of the most harmonious and love-filled marriages of New York society.  The New York Tribune later said “Coming as she did from a distinguished line and marrying into a historical family of New York her position in the world of society was assured from the start.”

Mamie Fish, as she was known to her friends, was not your typical society hostess.  Her down-to-earth sense of humor and her love of tongue-in-cheek and memorable entertainments made her a contemporary legend.  The Fishes moved into 28 East 56th Street, then took over the old brownstone mansion at 19 Gramercy Park in 1887 which Mamie updated (the address was actually 86 Irving Place; but Mamie had the addressed changed to the more socially-acceptable Gramercy Park).

While the Astors and Vanderbilts were building mansions along the more conspicuous Fifth Avenue, the Fishes lived more privately, if not quietly, on the somewhat secluded park.  Then as the 20th century approached, the Fishes moved uptown.  Still eschewing Fifth Avenue, they commissioned Stanford White to produce a five-story Italian palazzo at the corner of Madison Avenue and 78th Street.

Completed in 1900 in was a far cry from the mansarded brownstone Victorian mansion on Gramercy Park.   The elaborate Italian palace, opening on to 78th Street, was faced with two colors of brick and trimmed with limestone.   It would be the scene of Mamie Fish’s entertaining which would prompt the The Sun to say “this house…has become socially famous.”

photo by Alice Lum
Mamie's dinner parties were often followed by an "entertainment."  Soon after moving in she hosted an unusually restrained and exclusive affair.  The Tribune noted on July 25, 1900 that “Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish will ask only forty people to her dinner on Saturday evening.  The dinner will be followed by a vaudeville entertainment, for which a number of invitations have been issued.”

The hostess went out of her way to avoid the stuffiness of society gatherings.  She sent invitations to a dinner in honor of the visiting Prince del Drago, only to shock and then amuse her diamond-and-pearl draped guests when they realized the prince was a monkey.

Stuyvesant Fish's bedroom.  The Gothic revival bed sat on a raised platform -- photo Library of Congress
The press adored her.   She continuously provided fodder for an amusing article.  On October 11, 1902, The Evening World wrote of her new “pet bee.”  When Mrs. Stuyvesant returned from Hot Springs, she was sent a miniature automobile filled with flowers.  “As she scented the fragrant blossoms she heard a buzzing and then from the heart of a purple orchid there crept this bumblebee.  Mrs. Fish didn’t scream,” the paper reported.

Because of Mamie Fish’s extraordinary sense of humor, the minor incident became a tongue-in-cheek story in which she, no doubt, had no small part in publicizing.

“When the maid would have drowned it the daring leader of New York’s most daring set put a crown upon its golden head and enthroned it as fashion’s favorite.  It lives in the toy automobile with the orchid for its throne.  It feasts on honey, for which it does not hunt.  It is growing fat and lazy as most kings do.  Some day it will sting its mistress and then its throne will rock and most likely fall.  But while it behaves itself no woman who deems herself a somebody in the social …will dare fail in homage.”

It was just one more way that Mamie Stuyvesant warned New York society not to take itself too seriously.

Stanford White created a mansion of subdued elegance -- photo by Alice Lum
Mamie had hired the up-and-coming dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle to entertain after one of her dinner parties.   Just before they went on, she informed the pair that she had promised her guests that they would be the first to see a brand new dance.   Irene Castle later remembered that “We went out and did all of our old routines down to the last step.”

The following morning the newspapers announced that the “new dances” were a great hit with Mrs. Stuyvesant’s guests.

Mamie’s wit was sometimes biting.  She was known for her sharp comments that kept guests in their places.  As guests filed into her Newport mansion at the beginning of the season one year, Mamie sighed “Here you are again, older faces and younger clothes.”    Back in New York she greeted a guest with “Oh, it’s you.  I had forgotten I had invited you.”

Marian Stuyvesant was not just about wit and pranks.  She had definite opinions that she was not afraid to announce; many of them decidedly conservative.  She was against the “mixing of classes” and saw no reason for women to vote.   The Evening World reported on February 4, 1909 that she had joined the National League for the Civic Education of Women, an anti-suffragette organization.  “The society leader says she has thought the matter over carefully and is strongly opposed to equal suffrage.”

She told The New York Times that President Theodore Roosevelt’s wife “dresses on $300 a year and looks like it.”

In 1914 Frederick Vanderbilt invited the Duke and Duchess of Manchester to tour South America on his yacht, the Warrior.  The craft, however, wrecked and the wealthy party had to be rescued and brought back to New York on a steamer.

Mamie helped to calm the tattered royal nerves by hosting a dinner party.  The Sun announced that “Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, whose dinners have been a feature of the winter, will give a larger dinner to-morrow evening at her home for the Duke and Duchess of Manchester…There will be sixty guests and after dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Murray Anderson will dance.”

The following day The New York Times added that “The dinner was followed by monologues and exhibitions of fancy dancing.”  One trusts that the diversions helped the Duke and Duchess to forget their ordeal.

Carved limestone combined with intricate brickwork resulted in the restrained ornamentation -- photo by Alice Lum
Mrs. Stuyvesant was opposed to the extremely late entertainments expected in society.   Dinners often did not start until midnight and dancing went on towards dawn.  To announce that it was time for her guests to go home, she would order the orchestra to play “Home, Sweet Home.”

The same year as the dinner for the shipwrecked party, Mamie invited 500 guests to the house for a ball.   Shortly after 10 pm, said The Times, “guests began arriving and were received by Mrs. Fish, who stood at the head of the stairs in the foyer on the second floor.  All of the second floor was used for dancing, there being two orchestras.  A buffet supper, which was served from small tables in the dining room and foyer on the first floor, began at midnight, and during the supper a Pierrot and Pierrette danced to music by four Neapolitan players.  The supper was continuous.  Shortly after 2 o’clock the orchestras played ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ and the ball was over.”

An older Mamie Fish was dressed for a ball.
In May the following year, Mamie Fish died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage at her country estate in Garrison, New York.  The Sun remarked that “She had occupied a unique position in society.  Her personality was most interesting, and one of her chief objects in life seemed to be to give pleasure to others.  Being a woman of great energy, she was apparently all the time devising some new form of entertainment for her friends.  Beyond that she had a very kind heart, and it was not only for those to whom she was under social obligation that she was thinking out plans for pleasure, but equally for those whose positions in life were less fortunate.”

Stuyvesant Fish lived out his life at No. 25 East 78th Street; but the grand entertainments were over.  He died in 1923 and the following February an auction of the Stuyvesant art and furnishings was held on premises.

In the sale were Brussels tapestries, a carved and gilt Louis XVI parlor suite with Aubusson tapestry upholstery, marble statuary, and Italian Renaissance dining room suite, early Italian paintings and Mrs. Fish’s silver.  The remarkable Gothic revival bed in Mr. Fish’s bedroom sold for $275—about $3,000 today.

The house was briefly used as office space; in 1930 Formes, a French periodical on modern art had its English edition editorial offices here.   Then in the 1940s it became home to the private Walt Whitman School.

In 1952 Frank Z.Atran, a textile manufacturer and philanthropist purchased the house and donated it to the Jewish Labor Committee as its headquarters; the Atran Center for Jewish Culture.  The group announced that “The headquarters will be devoted to combating discrimination, strengthening democratic institutions and furthering Jewish cultural activity in the United States.”

Three decades later, in 1985, The Limited purchased the building as its offices for $13.25 million.  Stanford White’s turn-of-the-century interiors were gutted and the firm praised itself for the “ultramodern interior.”

The house sold again, in 2006, to the Bloomberg Family Foundation, headed by Michael R. Bloomberg.  The price had risen to $45 million.

Despite the unforgivable destruction of the interiors, the Stuyvesant Fish house remains one of the grandest of Madison Avenue survivors.  And the wife of its original owner was one of the most interesting characters of New York social history.

2 comments:

  1. Tom: I have the best time going through your archives.

    Are you familiar with a website: www.fultonhistory.com? Great archives of old New York newspapers.

    On to Mamie Fish: I have seen a dozen photos of her and she doesn't look the same in any of them- different enough, in fact, to think that they may not be of the same person. I read somewhere- and only once, that she was a serious drinker-which may explain some of her "antic" behaviour, as well as her jowly, heavy lidded appearance in some photos.

    So much for 100 year old gossip.

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  2. I agree about Mamie changing appearances. Never heard of her drinking, but, hey, I can't hold it against her! The fulton history site is very interesting. Thanks for that.

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