|photo by the author
In April 1837 George Sutton acquired property on the East side of Manhattan where only a few years earlier were summer estates of New York’s wealthy. Within a few decades development had reached the area. In 1875 Effingham B. Sutton erected a row of brownstone residences along the disengaged section of Avenue A that ran from 57th to 59th Street. The area was far from the fashionable neighborhoods to the west; yet it enjoyed the breezes from the East River directly behind the homes. In 1883 the little stretch of roadway was renamed Sutton Place.
The families who lived in No. 13 Sutton Place were respectable and middle class. In 1886 it was home to W. Beuttenmuller, Jr. who was listed in The Scientist’s International Directory; and in the 1890s Frederick Sauter lived here. He was a member of the New York Zoological Society.
But by 1895, when Sauter’s family was still in the house, the neighborhood was becoming gritty. The Peter Doelger Brewery operated nearby, tenement buildings had replaced many of the private homes, and those that survived were neglected and decaying. As the turn of the century passed, No. 13 had been converted for use by the Mha Chemical Company.
|Sutton Place following World War I was not the sort of area one would expect Manhattan's wealthiest citizens to congregate. photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library.
But in 1920 a stalwart group of wealthy New Yorkers did the shocking. They decided to colonize Sutton Place, creating what they would call Sutton Square—so called because the houses would share a large common garden in the rear that spilled down to the river. On December 26, 1920 the New-York Tribune broke the news, saying “A group of well known folks…have become interested in a little cluster of homes in the shadow of the massive Queensboro Bridge, on Sutton Place, a little byway of the city known by comparatively few New Yorkers.”
The socially-important urban pioneers included W. Seward Webb, Jr. “whose mother was Lila Osgood Vanderbilt,” architect Eliot Cross, Robert C. Knapp, Frederick Allen, conductor Walter Damrosch and others. Listed in the newspapers account was Miss Elisabeth Marbury. The exclusive enclave was composed of 18 houses forming a horseshoe around the garden; from 57th street, along the east side of Sutton Place, and back around 58th Street.
|The New-York Tribune published a photograph of the unaltered houses on January 16, 1921. The New York Times called the area "a slum." (copyright expired)
The group agreed, for uniformity, that “The brownstone stoops, the window ledges and other protrusions are to be cleaved off, leaving a straight front to the outside world. Architecturally the façade will be of the American basement style, which has been popular in the Fifth Avenue district for the last decade."
Elisabeth Marbury was a wealthy literary agent and producer who had been born into an aristocratic family. Among her clients were Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. In 1887 she met Elsie de Wolfe. Like most affluent young women, Elsie had traveled through Europe in her teens. She was well-known in New York social circles for her beautiful and creative dresses. But prior to meeting Marbury, she did something that no doubt raised eyebrows in many a Fifth Avenue sitting room. She went on stage as an amateur actress.
It was the first step in the colorful life of a woman, who like Elisabeth Marbury, dared to do what she wanted to do, despite tradition or social expectations.
When Elsie de Wolfe returned to New York in 1892, she briefly moved into Elisabeth’s home. The couple would become Manhattan’s most visible lesbian pair for decades. Later that year Elsie leased the house at No.122 East 17th Street where she and Elisabeth lived together until 1920.
|The Evening World printed a rather masculine looking photo of Elisabeth on March 3, 1921 (copyright expired)
By now their relationship was changing and living separately seemed the best idea. It would never be a complete severance, however; and Elsie de Wolfe, now considered perhaps the foremost interior decorator in America, handled much of the design plans for Elisabeth’s house at No. 13 Sutton Place.
De Wolfe often worked hand-in-hand with architect Mott B. Schmidt and he was brought in to remake the old, deteriorating Victorian. (It was a profitable commission for Schmidt, for he would soon do the renovations for two more Sutton Place mansions—those of Elisabeth’s friends Anne Morgan, daughter of J. P. Morgan; and Anne Vanderbilt, widow of William K. Vanderbilt.) When the New-York Tribune reported on December 1, 1920 that “Miss Marbury will make extensive alterations,” its readers could not have imagined how extensive those renovations would be. Schmidt’s transformation would cost “Bessie” $20,000—more than a quarter of a million dollars today.
Marbury explained the migration to The Evening World reporter Will B. Johnstone a few weeks after the renovations began. “It is the obvious thing to do. Here is sunlight and air and a river view as desirable as Riverside Drive. Why should the East River be neglected? Our garden will be a gem; a quaint old English garden with a red bricked wall.”
The Sutton Square gardens were intended to be the focal point of living here. “The interiors of our old brownstones will be completely turned about,” she said. “Living rooms, dining rooms, drawing rooms and master bedrooms will be in the back, facing our delightful garden and river view. What is now the front of the houses will be devoted to service entrances, kitchens and maids’ bedrooms. In this way the houses will be isolated from outside surroundings so far as owners and guests are concerned.”
While Schmidt’s renovated façade would be less grand than those he produced for Morgan and Vanderbilt; the Marbury house pretended to be an understated 18th century townhouse from the streets of Boston or London. Elegant in its simplicity, it was entered a few steps below the sidewalk. But if the exterior did little boasting, Elsie de Wolfe’s interiors made up for it.
Handsome English paneling, fine molded plaster ceilings, and imported elements set the background for Elisabeth’s eclectic belongings—at least 30 Chinese carpets, engravings of Roman gods and goddesses, Spanish laces, American quilts, and Asian embroidered hangings.
|The magnificent interiors survive intact. photos http://www.bhsusa.com/manhattan/midtown-east/sutton-place/townhouse/10190155#
The Times described the interiors. “On the ground floor of Miss Marbury’s house, opening on a rear terrace, is the dining room, paneled in oak, with old English, French and Spanish furniture, and hung temporarily with Jacobean crewel curtains and old needlework.
“At the rear of the second floor is the library, the walls of which are nearly covered with bookshelves. The drawing room, on the same floor, has among its furnishings a mahogany Chippendale secretary, Louis XVI tapestry-covered chairs, paintings and objects of art.
“On the third floor at the rear is Miss Marbury’s bedroom, furnished largely in French painted furniture, and at the front a guest room, in which hang three old Chinese paintings.”
Elisabeth Marbury did not restrict herself to the theatrical business. She was outspoken on political issues and made herself a force to be heard. She was a leader of woman suffrage and an ardent opponent of Prohibition (she called the attempt to enforce Prohibition “a grotesque and tragic failure”). Her satirical sense of humor and brilliant command of the written and spoken word was evidenced in an article about upcoming elections she wrote in June 1920.
“We were hoping against hope that Babe Ruth would open up headquarters. If only an honest-to-goodness human being would stumble into the White House by accident then the whispering gallery to be found in all the hotels would not have to give out such important items as ‘Tumulty has telephoned (stop),’ ‘McAdoo will run (don’t stop).’”
And yet in stark contrast to her support of women’s rights was her response to a journalist question about how a woman could be successful. “There is only one real success for women; that is to marry happily and have children and a home.”
By the time Bessie moved into the her new house, she was earning, according to The Evening World, $26,000 a year—more than the renovations had cost her. While her relationship with Elsie de Wolfe was perhaps no longer romantic, it was still strong. On March 19, 1922 when The New York Times reported that Elsie was leaving for Europe on the Aquitania, it listed her address as 13 Sutton Place. A little over a week later the newspaper notes that Elsie would “reopen the Villa Trianon at Versailles, where Miss Elisabeth Marbury will join her in June.” It added “Miss Marbury has discontinued her Sunday teas at 13 Sutton Place.”
Four years later The New York Times received a startling telegram from Paris. On March 9, 1926 it reported “According to reliable information this evening, Elsie de Wolfe, former American actress, and Sir Charles Mendl, head of the press section of the British Embassy in Paris, plan to be married Wednesday morning.” The newspaper added what to some was obvious. “The intended wedding comes as a great surprise to their friends.”
The ones who were not surprised by the newspaper account were Bessie’s closest friends. “Announcement of the planned wedding was made very recently at a fashionable tea given by Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt. Only a small circle of intimate friends were informed.” The Times closed its article saying “When in New York [Miss de Wolfe] makes her home with Miss Elisabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place."
Bessie Marbury apparently enjoyed her downtime not only in teas and other refined Sutton Square entertainments. On the evening of Wednesday October 26, 1927 she left No. 13 and headed to “a night club on East Fifty-seventh Street.” The now-aging woman was no doubt panicked when she realized within the next day or so that she had lost a ring that evening. On Saturday The New York Times noted that “Miss Marbury said the ring was a fifteenth century piece,which had belonged to a Pope and which had been given to her by an Englishman, Evan Morgan, the son of Lord Tredegar.”
A staunch Democrat, Elisabeth Marbury was actively involved in the political arena—in so far as a woman could be--and became a National Democratic Party committeewoman. Her Democratic ties were evidenced when, on March 17, 1931, she gave a “small luncheon” in the house for Governor and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt to celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary.
A few months later, on May 2, the house was the scene of a much larger affair. “About 200 guests, including Democratic women leaders in the various districts of the five boroughs, attended the reception and tea given by Miss Elisabeth Marbury, Democratic National Committeewoman from New York State, for Mrs. John F. Curry, wife of the Tammany Hall leader,” reported The Times the following day.
|Elisabeth Marbury (right) in her later years -- photograph Library of Congress
When a reporter asked Elisabeth if she cared to comment on the upcoming 1932 Democratic Convention, she replied that as a State Committeewoman, she could not comment on a candidate. Then she quoted Woodrow Wilson. “’Facts do not threaten—they operate.’ We Democrats do not have to worry. We are sitting still and watching facts operate.”
On Thursday, January 19, 1933 the 77-year old Elisabeth Marbury underwent a minor operation on her leg. She seemed to have come through the operation with no ill effects. Then, at 5:33 on the morning of January 22 she died in the Sutton Place house of a heart attack. The amazing woman died with only her servants and her physician, Dr. A. W. Dunn, in the room.
Two days later Rev. Thomas L. Graham of St. Patrick’s Cathedral arrived at the Sutton Place home to give a blessing to Marbury’s body. It was then taken to the Cathedral where 2,000 mourners filed in for the funeral. Outside, an estimated crowd of 1,000 crammed the sidewalks. The woman who died alone was now honored by the presence of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President-elect; the former Governor Alfred E. Smith; and political figures like James A. Farley, Mayor John P. O’Brien, and Robert Jackson, Democratic national secretary.
“The coffin was borne into the church under a rich covering of Templar roses and lilies of the valley from which hung long streamers of smilax,” reported The New York Times. “The floral blanket had been sent by Miss Anne Morgan and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, both of whom were present.”
Bessie left nearly her entire estate, including the Sutton Place residence valued at $35,000, to Elsie de Wolfe. In November 1933 No. 13 was opened to the public to preview the upcoming auction of all Marbury’s possessions. After the house was emptied, it was placed on the market. Its buyer would be as well-known as Elisabeth Marbury.
On March 3, 1934 The New York Times reported that “Miriam Hopkins, actress, was the buyer of the home of the late Elisabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place when it was sold two weeks ago.” The theater connection of the two owners was not lost on syndicated columnist George Ross who wrote “The dynasty is continued at 13 Sutton Place and the girl from Hollywood is in charge. Admirers gravitate toward its brownstone front to sit and worship or just to sit.”
According to The New York Times, Hopkins “extensively altered” the house. “She installed air-conditioning and a remote-control radiovictrola which can be operated from any room in the building.” But the actress, simply by the nature of her profession, was unable to stay for extended periods in the Sutton Place house.
She frequently was required to close the house when she was in Hollywood or elsewhere filming. In 1936 George Ross wrote that Hopkins “has waved a fond so-long to her four-story brownstone that stands with its priceless furnishings on Sutton Place and to the East River scows that she could see at even a slight turn of her flaxen head. She has left behind her proud collection of books and art, and that graphic view that she could get (had she a mind to) from the northeast bedroom window. She has also left behind, practically a whole artists’ colony that gravitates toward her dwelling.”
Mirian Hopkins began leasing the house around 1938 during her absences. That year she rented it to Richard S. Rheem, President of the Rheem Manufacturing Company of San Francisco. The arrangement was convenient; since both came and went from the West Coast.
She was back the following summer when she talked to reporter Willa Gray Martin of the Sutton Square residents’ revolt against the proposed FDR Drive. “We sat in Miss Hopkins’ Sutton Place house facing the East River. In the garden outside, summer’s late flowers and grass were making a last stand. And beyond, through the trees, could be seen the river where men were working on a highway. Every once in a while a war-like cataclysm would rent the air, shaking the flowers into hysterics. A roadway was being blasted,” reported Martin on October 15, 1939.
Hopkins explained. “There was a nefarious pan afoot to have the highway run parallel to our lawns. But those of us who own houses in Sutton Place got together and paid to have the road covered over with grass. Our back yards will stretch right down to the river as they do now, and we’ll have boat landings, though goodness knows who’ll use them!”
Because of the actions of Miriam Hopkins and her wealthy neighbors, the FDR Drive runs under the Sutton Place backyards today; not through them.
Miram Hopkins came and went from California to Sutton Place, leasing No. 13 in the interim mostly to film industry figures like director Garson Kanin, who lived here in 1942; Judy Garland, who leased it for seven months; and Jules Stein.
Eventually, at the age of 64, Hopkins sold No. 13 Sutton Place when she moved permanently to Los Angeles in 1966. Little has changed since then. The house that Elisabeth Marbury, Elsie de Wolfe and Mott Schmidt created was recently put on the market for $15 million. It is a remarkable slice in the history of American theater, literature and politics; as well as in the development of a most unexpected and unique residential New York enclave.
many thanks to reader Maureen Emerson for suggesting this post
many thanks to reader Maureen Emerson for suggesting this post