In the 1870's Richard W. Buckley was deemed by the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide to be a "rising young architect." In 1880 he formed a partnership with developer Robert McCafferty. Initially McCafferty & Buckley designed and erected rows of middle-class brownstone homes. But in the 1890's they aimed at a more moneyed customer base.
In 1900 they began construction on a row of sumptuous mansions at 18 through 26 East 82nd Street. Completed the following year, the Beaux Arts style houses were harmoniously, yet individually, designed. Like the others, 20 East 82nd Street was intended for a wealthy buyer. Five stories tall and 26-feet wide, it sat behind elegant areaway fencing with paneled stone gateposts. Heavy Gibbs surrounds framed the entrance and first floor windows. A carved stone balcony introduced the three-story midsection. The fifth floor openings, which sat atop the bracketed intermediate cornice, wore impressive broken pediments.
Robert McCafferty's health began to fail around the time the houses were completed in 1901. The sale of these and many other properties was held up. After what was termed “a lingering illness,” he died in his Park Avenue home on February 11, 1905. Two years later the McCafferty holdings finally began being liquidated. The New York Times remarked “The sale of the real estate owned by the late Robert McCafferty is an event of unusual interest to the older generation of real estate men in New York, among whom he was for many years a leader.”
On April 16, 1907 Richard W. Buckley "as surviving partner" sold 20 East 82nd Street to Eugene Murrough O'Neill. Born in Clonroche, Ireland in 1850, he had emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a youth, "following his brother Daniel," according to The Recorder, Bulletin of the American Irish Historical Society later. He became the editor and publisher of The Pittsburgh Dispatch and then increased his significant fortune in Pittsburgh real estate.
Eugene's brother had married Emily Martha Seely in 1867. They had three children. Daniel died in 1877 and two years later Eugene and Emily were married.
Eugene M. O'Neill had retired in 1902. The purchase of 20 East 82nd Street was, presumably, a gift to Emily O'Neill, his step-daughter, who had married Frederick Martin Davies in 1901. Nevertheless, he listed his New York address here with the Davies family.
Born in 1877, Frederick Martin Davies had graduated from Yale University in 1899. He went into the railroad business for two years and then turned to banking. When he and Emily moved into their new home, he was a partner in Alexander, Thomas & Davies. The couple had a four-year-old daughter, Emily O'Neill and a one year old son, Frederick Martin, at the time. A second daughter, Audrey, would arrive in 1912.
In 1914 Frederick "was stricken with a cold, which did not improve," according to the New York Herald. Hoping that a change of climate would help, he went to Santa Barbara, California. There he developed pneumonia and his condition was so precarious that his closest friend since childhood, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, "obtained a special train in order to get quickly to his bedside."
Frederick rallied and the New York Herald said, "Later Mr. Davies went to Palm Beach, Fla., and then took a yachting trip, but neither of these served to improve his health." On May 2, 1915, Frederick Davies died in the 82nd Street mansion at just 38 years old. Calling him a "prominent horseman and clubman," The New York Times listed his many memberships in exclusive clubs: the Metropolitan, Union, Knickerbocker, New York Yacht, Piping Rock, University, Colony, Down Town and The Brook Clubs.
The bulk of Frederick's extensive estate went to Emily. The will directed her to set aside $50,000, "the income to be paid to Frederick Martin Davies, Jr., until he is 25 years old, or until he shall be graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Then he is to receive the principal." Frederick Jr.'s father was obviously intent that his son would attend the Academy. "Should the boy not choose to enter the academy or fail to finish his course there, the fund is to revert to the residuary estate." His $50,000 (about $1.3 million today) inheritance would then be divided among him and his sisters.
The will also directed Emily to choose "some articles of jewelry" for Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt as a "personal remembrance." Tragically, on the day before Frederick's death, Vanderbilt had boarded the RMS Lusitania headed for England. He was among the victims when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7.
Among other bequests was $5,000 to Burton Leopold Powley, "man servant of my father-in-law, Eugene M. O'Neill." An Englishman, Powley was O'Neill's valet. The position, like that of a lady's maid, resulted in close, personal relations--despite its being an employer-employee situation.
The family had always summered in Newport. Now, in November (despite still being in mourning), Emily hired the architectural firm of Mann & MacNeille to design a summer home in Southampton, Long Island. Upon its completion the Daily News called it "one of the show places in fashionable Southampton."
During World War I, New York socialites threw their support behind the various causes. Emily showed her support for the troops abroad in what might seem a surprising way. On January 15, 1918, The Sun reported, "Mrs. F. M. Davies, 20 East Eighty-second street, has generously provided some 67,000 smokes for our soldiers in France."
Eugene O'Neill's valued manservant, Burton Powley, registered for the draft in September that year. It may have been his age--he was 41 years old at the time--that kept him from service. His registration form listed his address at 20 East 82nd Street.
But, ironically, being drafted might have saved his life. Ten months later, on July 14, 1919, Powley was headed from Manhattan to the Davies country home in Southampton on a motorcycle. Riding with him was Dora Harding. They were about two miles from the Davies estate when the motorcycle was hit by an automobile. Miss Harding was killed instantly and Powley died at the Southampton Hospital a few hours later.
On February 8, 1923, Emily gave a dinner party in honor of William Henry Vanderbilt III, the son of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. There was more to her tribute to the 22-year-old than the close relationship between his father and Emily's deceased husband. Later that year, on November 1, her daughter Emily O'Neill Davies and William Henry were married in Grace Church.
The New York Times reported, "A Vanderbilt wedding naturally attracted a large crowd, but the police kept the curious well in hand, although there was a crush of women around the entrance awning." Eugene O'Neill walked his granddaughter to the altar. Audrey, who was now 11 years old, was the bride's maid of altar.
Following the ceremony, the millionaire guests filed into 20 East 82nd Street for the reception. The New York Times said the house "was simply decorated with large jars of russet oak leaves, dark chrysanthemums and small palms with white and palm hued autumnal flowers in the drawing room, where the bride and bridegroom received congratulations."
In September 1926 Eugene M. O'Neill contracted pneumonia. He died at St. Luke's Hospital on November 26 at the age of 72.
The marriage of Emily and William H. Vanderbilt was not going well at the time. That year rumors of trouble circulated when Emily went to Paris while William vacationed in California. Although William told reporters upon his return to New York that "there was nothing to the reports," Emily returned to Paris that fall. Friends said she told them "she was through with married life."
In May 1928 Emily sued for divorce. Gossip said she was having an affair with theater producer Sigourney Thayer. The rumors proved true when the couple was married in the East 82nd Street mansion on December 7 that year. The New York Times reported, "The marriage comes as a complete surprise to the friends of the couple, as no preview announcement of the engagement had been made." Not surprisingly, only immediate family members were present at the ceremony.
Arthur Mefford, writing in the Daily News, was less sympathetic in its reporting of the wedding. He wrote, "Mrs. Emily Davies Vanderbilt, harum-scarum daughter of Mrs. Frederick Martin Davies, 20 East 82d st., and divorced wife of William H. Vanderbilt 3d, eloped yesterday with Sigourney Thayer, jack of all trades and a rival of the famed Joe Cook as a 'one man show.'"
This marriage did not work out, either. A year later the couple divorced. Emily Vanderbilt Thayer spent much of her time in Paris, surrounding herself with literary figures like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. She reputedly had a two-month affair with poet E. E. Cummings.
The colorful and tragic Emily Davies Vanderbilt Thayer Whitfield. from the collection of the Library of Congress.
When in America, of course, she was either at the Southampton estate or 20 East 82nd Street. On April 20, 1930 Cholly Knickerbocker, the pseudonym of a group of society columnists, reported in the Times-Union, "Recently Mrs. Thayer has been making her headquarters with her mother, Mrs. Frederick Martin Davies, at 20 East Eighty-second street." The writer had caught sight of her at the Madison Square Garden circus, proving "that Emily is decidedly more human than most of the ladies who have been in a position to sign themselves' Mrs. Vanderbilt.'"
Emily's place in the spotlight was briefly taken by her mother that year. On July 19, 1930 The New York Times reported, "Cables were received by relatives here announcing the marriage in Paris yesterday of Mrs. Emily O'Neill Davies, widow of Frederick Martin Davies, to Horace Chase Stebbins...It took place very quietly in the Hotel Crillon."
There would be no time for an extensive honeymoon. One month later, on August 21, 600 guests were invited to a ball at the Alexander Hamilton Rice mansion, Miramar, in Newport to celebrate the betrothal of the Rice's granddaughter, Diana Dodge, to Frederick M. Davies, Jr.
The wedding on December 6, 1930 in St. Thomas' Church on Fifth Avenue took up nearly a full page of the Daily News. The article said, "It was a Social Occasion (capitals, please), with every one conscious of the fact that the Dodge-Davies nuptials were bound to be an Event. Because of the prominence of the two families...Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Newport were as interested in the wedding as Manhattan and sent their highest hats to attend."
Emily Davies Vanderbilt Thayer married again in 1933. Her husband this time was mystery writer Raoul Whitfield. This marriage would end in what could have been a chapter from one of his books. Following her long-established trend, Emily started divorce proceedings in 1935. The couple had purchased a ranch in Las Vegas, New Mexico called Dead Horse. At around 7:30 on the morning of May 24 an employee entered Emily's bedroom there to light a fire. He found her shot dead through the heart.
The Daily News wrote, "Society knew Emily Davies Vanderbilt Thayer Whitfield as either a Scott Fitzgerald flapper born too late or a member of the Lost Generation. Born to the purple, she inclined toward the mauve." A coroner's jury deemed the death a suicide, despite the fact that the wound was on her left side and she was right-handed, making it nearly impossible to have been self-inflicted. Years later Lillian Hellman flatly said, "she was murdered...and neither the mystery story expert nor the police ever found the murderer."
Things had not gone well with Frederick's marriage, either. In June 1936, Diana Dodge Davies obtained a Nevada divorce and on the day after Christmas she married George Ryan. The Daily News described the newlyweds as "two of fortune's as well as Society's darlings." In reporting the marriage, the newspaper recalled, "Her Park Avenue wedding to Frederick Davies, the son of Mrs. Horace Chase Stebbins...was one of the grandest at which the Best People of New York, Newport and Philadelphia have hobnobbed."
In the meantime, Horace Stebbins had adopted Audrey. He died in Roosevelt Hospital at the age of 73 on June 2, 1947. Eleven years later, after suffering what The New York Times called "a long illness," Emily died at the age of 82 on October 3, 1958.
photographs by the author
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