|photo by Alice Lum|
If the Yankee millionaires held any political grudges, they were soon buried as Wilson’s children married into the wealthiest and most socially powerful families. Daughter Mary would marry the immensely rich Ogden Goelet; Belle would wed the Honorable Sir Michael Henry Herbert, brother of the Earl of Pembroke; Grace would become Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III and son Richard, Jr. would marry Marion Steadman Mason.
But of the siblings’ high profile weddings, none would outshine that of son Marshall Orme Wilson. The engagement hit the newspapers on June 29, 1884. In florid Victorian prose The Sun reported on the match.
“The engagement of Miss Caroline Astor and Mr. Orme Wilson has been formally announced in Paris, whither Mr. Wilson followed Miss Astor very soon after her departure, and whence he will return her accepted lover. Notwithstanding the worldly advantages which hedge the expectant bride on this occasion, the attachment between the young couple dates back to the early days when they were both members of Mrs. Parson’s well-known dancing class, and were young enough to believe in and to trust each other.”
|Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson -- photo Library of Congress|
|Marshall Orme Wilson|
Carrie wore her wedding present from Marshall, a diamond necklace with a ruby, pearl, and sapphire pendant. The necklace and pendant were valued at around $75,000—over $1.5 million today. The couple’s parents added to the pile of gifts that included “jewels, gold and silver ware, articles of crystal, china, bronze, and many other things fitted for household use and ornament” that were displayed on a crimson colored table in the rear parlor. Mrs. Astor gave Carrie diamonds and other jewels and a pair of old English solid silver candelabra four feet high, four pairs of old English solid silver salt cellars, and a set of gold coffee spoons. Carrie’s father gave her a “full set of diamond jewels” and threw in “a handsome residence on Fifth-avenue.” Richard Wilson completely furnished the new house, then added “a full table service of silver knives, forks, and spoons.”
The following day The Times reported that William Backhouse Astor issued a registered certificate for $100,000 for Caroline as an additional gift.
The New York Times would comment, years later, “With the marriage of [Marshall Orme Wilson’s] sister, Grace Wilson, to Cornelius Vanderbilt, now General Vanderbilt, the Wilson family thus became connected with two of the most powerful families socially in the United States, and since that time their own prominence in the social life of New York and Newport has continued."
The Wilsons moved into their new home at No. 414 Fifth Avenue and entertained in the style expected from the alliance of two of the city’s most prominent families. But there was trouble two blocks to the south. Carrie’s cousin, William Astor, and her mother were engaged in a tumultuous family feud. In 1893 William dealt a deciding blow in the battle by razing his family home next door to Mrs. Astor’s and erecting the hulking Waldorf Hotel.
Carrie’s brother, John “Jack” Astor, reacted by constructing a massive double French mansion at the corner of 5th Avenue and 65th Street for his mother and himself. The Wilsons would not be far behind.
As the enormous house was rising, the New-York Tribune reported on May 24, 1896 that Marshall Orme Wilson had purchased a large plot of ground just around the corner on East 64th Street. “He will build a fine dwelling there for his own use, covering the entire plot,” the newspaper said.
The site for the Wilsons’ new home stretched 65-feet wide, covering the plots of Nos. 3 through 5. Architects Warren & Wetmore were commissioned to design the mansion that would leave no question regarding the financial and social status of its owners.
Construction began in 1900 and would not be completed for a full three years. As the house neared completion, in 1902, Wilson sold the mansion given to the pair as a wedding present twenty years earlier. The drastic changes in that area of 5th Avenue were apparent when the house was taken over by “Lichtenstein, the milliner” for business purposes.
|photo NYPL Collection|
|photo by Alice Lum|
The deed was put in Caroline’s name, and by 1904 the house was ready to receive guests. Three hundred guests filed into the mansion for the housewarming. They were entertained by opera singers Madame Lillian Nordica and Enrico Caruso. It would be the first recital of decades of musical functions held by Carrie Astor Wilson in the house, most sponsored for charitable functions.
In the fall of 1906 Carrie’s mother showed signs of a nervous breakdown. The following season Jack Astor announced that the aging dowager would not be opening her Newport cottage, Beechwood. It was then that society recognized the severity of the situation.
Her condition continued to decline and she was rarely seen in public. On the afternoon of October 30, 1908 Carrie Wilson rushed from her house to the nearby Astor mansion where Mrs. Astor had slipped into unconsciousness. At 7:30 that evening, with Carrie as the only family member at her side, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor died ending an epoch in New York social history.
Mrs. Astor’s estate was split, mainly, between Carrie and her sister. John Jacob Astor was essentially left out of the will, receiving only some specified jewelry. A clause explained “I desire my son, who receives no part of my estate, to understand that it is not from any want of affection that I have made this exception, but because he has been fully provided for by his father.”
Unlike her mother, Carrie's lavish entertainments were often for charitable purposes. In January 1913 she hosted two innovative functions for the support of a district nurse in the babies' ward of the Post Graduate Hospital. She recruited wealthy socialites and their children to pose in “tableaux vivants.” The Sun reported that “The subjects will be reproductions of paintings by famous masters.” Presented in two sessions—one on the afternoon of January 27 and the second the following night—the children posed in the afternoon tableaux and the adults at night.
|photo by Alice Lum|
With the country’s entrance into World War I, Carrie turned her focus to war causes. On the afternoon of Saturday February 2, 1916, the Wilsons hosted “a most successful entertainment…for the benefit of the students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts of Paris who are at the front and also for the benefit of their families,” reported The Sun. The affair was arranged by the New York architects who had been educated in Paris.
A stage was constructed in the Wilson’s ballroom. The first part of the program was a concert during which Joseph Pizzarello played piano solos including compositions of Grieg and Godard; Albert Spalding played violin solos, and soprano Mlle. Lina Dilson of Brussels sang French songs. In the second part the Theatre Francais presented a one-act comedy entitled “Suzy.”
The newspaper reported that “the demand for tickets was so great that the sale had to be stopped.” Among the prominent names in the audience were Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Mrs. Ogden Mills, Edward De Peyster Livingston, Mrs. Howad Brokaw, Mrs. Moses Taylor Pyne, Mrs. Auguste Heckscher and Baroness Raoul de Graffenreid.
After the war, Carrie became interested in the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine—but not before she hosted one last war-related function. The Sun reported on January 21, 1919 that “Mrs. M. Orme Wilson…has asked some of her friends for Thursday afternoon to hear Capt. Guilliland, British army, tell of his experiences in German prison camps in which he was confined fourteen months.”
Just over a week later architect Ralph Adams Cram gave a lecture in the house, talking about the cathedral. The construction project became one of Carrie Wilson’s favored causes and she would host the sewing class of the Fresh Air Association of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for years.
On April 1, 1926, Marshall Orme Wilson died in the house on East 64th Street. Carrie lived on in the house, alone with her staff, and eventually resumed her regimen of charity teas and entertainments. Unlike her mother who had been vocal about mixing with those beneath one’s social station and who criticized her sister-in-law, Augusta Astor, for her charity works, Carrie’s philanthropy was wide-flung. Among her later interests was the New York Women’s League for Animals which met regularly in the Wilson mansion.
Forty-four years after Caroline Schermerhorn Astor Wilson threw open the doors to her East 64th Street mansion to her first guests; she died on September 13, 1948 at the age of 87. Three months later, on December 12, The New York Times reported “The big town house of the late Mrs. Orme Wilson at 3 East Sixty-fourth Street has been purchased by the Government of India as headquarters for its diplomatic representatives in New York.”
The mansion, once the scene of glittering musical entertainments for New York’s wealthiest citizens, became home to the offices of the Consulate General of India along with residential suites for the Ambassador to the United States and members of its United Nations delegation.
|The mansion remains much as it did when the Wilsons moved in -- photo by Alice Lum|