Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Joseph S Frelinghuysen House - 45 East 68th Street

The family of General Thomas H. Barber had lived in the old brownstone rowhouse at No. 45 East 68th Street for years when, following his death in 1910, the house was sold by his estate.  On January 18, 1911 The New York Times announced the buyer was State Senator Joseph S Frelinghuysen.

Frelinghuysen and his wife, the former Emily Macy Brewster, hired esteemed architect C. P. H. Gilbert to design a modern home on the site of the outdated Victorian.  The New York Times announced on March 14 that the 25-foot wide home "will be of the American basement type, five stories in height, thoroughly equipped with all the modern conveniences of first-class residences."

The completed structure cost $45,000--or about $1.2 million today.  Gilbert had turned away from the Beaux Arts confections he had designed for millionaires a decade earlier; creating instead a placid neo-Federal mansion.  Above the rusticated stone base a building-wide balconette fronted a trio of French windows, their stone tympani decorated with gloriously carved urns, roses and swirling ribbons.  The red field of the Flemish-bond brickwork was enlivened with beige colored headers.

Stone and iron balconettes graced the third floor French windows which, like those directly above, wore paneled stone lintels and splayed keystones.  Above the bracketed cornice a formal balustrade completed the Federal design.

The rooftop balustrade, seen here at the left in 1944, has been sadly lost.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

Frelinghuysen had been elected to the Senate in 1905 and was elected its president in 1909.  He and Emily had two daughters, Victoria and Emily.  Not long after moving into their new home, a son, Joseph Jr. was born.

The family would not enjoy the 68th Street house for long.  In 1916 Frelinghuysen was elected to the United States Senate, prompting a move to Washington D. C.   On January 27, 1917 The Sun noted "William H. Porter of J. P. Morgan & Co. is negotiating for the purchase of the Frelinghuysen dwelling" and noted that it "is valued at more than $200,000."  The dollar figure agreed upon in the deal was kept private; and on February 5 title was transferred to Porter's wife, the former Esther Jackson.

The Porters had two children, Helen and James.  Their country estate, Bogheid, was in Glen Cove, Long Island.  It was there, on September 29 the same year the Porters bought the 68th Street house, that Helen married Richard L. Davisson.  The New York Times noted "The ceremony was performed in the sunken garden of the estate, which lies in front of the house."  The choir from the Cathedral of the Incarnation provided the music.

Helen's brother was not present.  In April that year the United States had entered World War I and James went off to fight in France.  He would never return.  A captain in the Army, he was killed in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in the fall of 1918 while commanding a machine gun unit.

Although William H. Porter had grown up in comfortable surroundings, he was essentially a self-made man.  Born in 1861 in Middlebury, Vermont, he had been educated at the Middlebury Academy.  At just 17 years old he left home for New York City, intent on being a banker.  Decades later The New York Times remarked "he knew just what he wanted to do and his procedure showed that he also knew how to go about doing it."  He got a job with the Fifth Avenue Bank, well known as a "training bank."  There he worked in every department of the bank, learning the trade thoroughly.

Throughout the years he had held numerous high-powered banking jobs, finally becoming a partner in J. P. Morgan & Co. on New Year's Day 1911.  This accumulated wealth was evidenced in his exclusive club memberships--the Metropolitan, the Century, Union League, Piping Rock and the New York Yacht Clubs.  Now empty-nesters, he and Esther not only divided their time between the Glen Cove and Manhattan homes; but at fashionable resorts.  On March 22, 1920, for instance, The Times reported that they "have arrived for their customary early spring visit" to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

On November 30, 1926 William and Esther went on a drive.  When they reached Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, they decided to take a stroll.  The following day The Times reported "They had been motoring and had alighted from their car on the avenue to take a short walk.  After proceeding a few steps Mr. Porter was suddenly seized with an acute attack of heart disease, fell to the sidewalk and died almost immediately."

While Esther received about one-half of his $11 million estate, as well as "the pictures, library, silver and plate, furniture, automobiles, horses and carriages."  Helen received a $500,000 trust fund and her two children were provided $100,000 trust funds each.

Helen's marriage was soon in trouble.  She obtained a divorce from her husband on September 15, 1927.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Paul Pryibil divorced his wife five months later.  That match had been an unlikely one from the beginning.  Pryibil was earning $15 per week as a clerk when he married heiress Edmee Eloise Schaefer, who had inherited $11 million from the estate of her father, Rudolph Jay Schaefer.  In his divorce application, he claimed he "had tired of being supported by a wealthy woman whose interests in life centered on her apparel."

Not wanting to be supported by a wealthy woman did not stop him from marrying Helen Porter Davisson eight months later.  After a civil ceremony in Palm Beach, they had a religious ceremony in the East 68th Street house.  Nevertheless the entire affair was kept quiet.

Helen's mansion was just a block away from her mother's, at No. 25 East 69th Street.  On October 12, The New York Times reported "Mr. and Mrs. Pryibil left the East Sixty-ninth Street address at 4 o'clock, accompanied by a friend, and were driven to the Porter home where the religious ceremony was performed at 4:30."  The newspaper said that Helen's "second marriage will come as a surprise to society, which did not learn until last week that she had obtained a decree of divorce from Mr. Davisson."

Esther Porter may not have entirely given her blessings to the marriage.  The newspaper said "at the home of the bride's mother it was denied that the marriage had taken place."

Esther filled her time with philanthropies.  For over 15 years she served as treasurer of the Kittredge Club for Girls, which aided young business women; and in 1920 helped found the club's summer camp.  In the spring of 1934 she contracted influenza which, coupled with heart disease, proved fatal.  She died in the 68th Street house on May 24.

No. 45 was leased for more than a decade.  A long-term tenant was attorney John Gerdes and his family.  The senior member of Gerdes & Montgomery, he was appointed additionally as legal counsel to New York University in April 1940.  The Gerdes summer home was in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

The first of the Gerdes' two daughters to marry was Margery, who wed Army Lt. Dudley Livingston Miller on June 9, 1943.  Her sister, Janet, was her attendant.

In 1951 the house was sold to Michel Porges; who resold it two years later to Richard Tompkins Kollmar and his wife, Dorothy Kilgallen.  Although Kollmar was well-known as a stage, radio and television actor and producer; his fame was overshadowed by his television celebrity and columnist wife, whom he met while he was performing in the Broadway play Too Many Girls.

Dorothy's father, James L. Kilgallen, was a journalist with the International News Service.  During her freshman year at the College of New Rochelle, she took a summer job as a cub reporter with The New York Evening Journal.  But when her story about a hospitalized child earned her a by-line, she was hooked on journalism and by the time she was 20 her name was familiar to readers of that newspaper.

Her newspaper sent her on a round-the-world flight in 1936 in a competition with other papers.  The reporters used commercial flights, and Dorothy's 24-day excursion came in second to H. R. Ekins's 18-day trip.  It nevertheless gained the female reporter enormous publicity.  Her "The Voice of Broadway" column broke ground as theatrical critics up to then were exclusively male.

Since 1945 Dorothy and Richard had aired a radio program, "Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick," during which they chatted informally about family incidents, social engagements and such.  When they moved into No. 45 East 68th Street, they continued the program from the house.  While the clatter of dishes and the clink of silverware gave listeners the impression they were sitting at their breakfast table, it was in fact being broadcast from a studio on the fourth floor.  The show started each episode with "Good morning, darling--good morning, sweetie."

Dorothy and Dick at around the time they purchased the 68th Street house, from the Everett Collection via
Since 1949 Dorothy had been a regular panelist on the television quiz show "What's My Line?" making hers a household name.   And while she continued her somewhat gossipy columns like "Broadway Bulletin Board," she was a determined reporter who sometimes wove her own opinion into major news stories.

Such was the case in 1954 when she sat through the trial of Dr. Samuel Sheppard, the Cleveland osteopath who famously claimed a mysterious one-armed man, not he, had murdered his wife.  She strongly disagreed with the jury's guilty verdict, and the following day a banner headline on page 1 of the Hearst newspapers read "DOROTHY KILGALLEN SHOCKED!"  She maintained the prosecution's case had significant shortcomings.

It was rare that newspaper readers saw Dorothy referred to as Mrs. Richard Tompkins.  But such was the case in 1961 when she and Richard hosted daughter Jill Ellen's debutante supper dance in the St. Regis Roof; and on July 21, 1963 when society columnists reported on her wedding to Lawrence A. Grossman.  The New York Times made no mention of her famous mother, but added "She is a great-great-granddaughter of Daniel D. Tompkins, who was Governor of New York and Vice President under President James Monroe."

To this day there are those who believe that Dorothy's outspoken and sometimes controversial editorializing ended in her death.

In 1964 she interviewed Jack Ruby inside the Dallas courthouse where he was being tried for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald.  She never revealed what the two discussed.  Then she angered officials of the Warren Commission when she obtained a copy of his testimony and published it.

She deemed the Commission's conclusion that Oswald had acted alone "laughable" and continued her own investigation, compiling a mass of evidence, notes and interviews that she carefully guarded.

On the night of November 8, 1965 Kilgallen appeared on "What's My Line?" (incidentally correctly identifying the occupation of a contestant, a female dynamite merchant) and then returned home.  After writing her next day's column and sending it by messenger to The New York Journal-American, she went to bed.

The following afternoon at around 12:45 her hairdresser arrived for a scheduled appointment.  He found the 52-year-old Dorothy dead.  The Times reported "Miss Kilgallen's husband, Richard Kollmar, a former actor and producer, and their youngest child, Kerry Allen, 12, were asleep in other rooms when she died."  Strikingly missing was the entire file of her investigation into the assassination.

On November 11, the day before her funeral, an estimated 10,000 people filed past her mahogany coffin in the Abbey Funeral Home.  The following morning it was carried across the street to the St. Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church on Lexington Avenue at 66th Street.   Inside were 2,000 mourners, while another 1,000 packed the avenue.   The church was packed with famous names from the various media.  Honorary pallbearers included John Daly, Mark Goodson, and William Randolph Hearst.  Among the mourners were Ed Sullivan, Elaine Stritch, Allen Ludden, Jessica Dragonette, jazz pianist Bobby Short and former Postmaster General James A. Farley.  The New York Times made passing mention that dress designer Anne Fogarty was there.

Two years later, on June 22, 1967 the same newspaper announced "Anne Fogarty, the fashion designer, was married last evening to Richard Tompkins Kollmar, radio personality, former actor and now owner of Richard Kollmar's Pastiche Inc. dealers in baroque and whimsical art."  The newlyweds remained in the 68th Street house, and the fourth floor space where "Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick" had been aired, became Anne's design studio.

Richard died of a heart attack in the house in January 1971 at the age of 60.  His funeral was held in the St. Vincent Ferrer Church, where Dorothy's had been held six years earlier, on January 9.

Although No. 45 remained a single-family home, a doctor's office was installed in the ground floor two years later.  Today, while there are five apartments inside, the exterior of C. P. H. Gilbert's dignified neo-Federal residences is nearly unchanged.  Also unchanged is the speculation that continues to whirl around what many consider the mysterious death of Dorothy Kilgallen.

photographs by the author


  1. In 1935, with the Depression still in full force, FDR’s “Soak the rich” tax policies taking their toll on those large incomes that still existed and the international situation darkening, Helen Porter Pryibil tore down her father’s large, shingle style country house Bogheid and replaced it with an enormous Georgian brick behemoth designed by William Delano, replete with a connected indoor tennis court and two lane bowling alley in the basement. It has to be one of the last really great houses built in the United States in the period from 1929-1980 and, at the time, a singular vote of confidence in the future of large houses and grand living. Mrs. Pryibil left the property to the City of Glen Cove and it now encompasses the municipal golf course and the largest of the public beaches. Great post, by the way.

  2. Curious...Exactly HOW does a house "Lose" it's balustrade?

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  4. Regarding this text in the article :

    The following afternoon at around 12:45 her hairdresser arrived for a scheduled appointment. She found the 52-year-old Dorothy dead.

    Actually, the hairdresser was a man. His name was Marc Sinclaire. Dorothy Kilgallen had given him the key to the brownstone so he could let himself in the front door without waking the servants. She had given it to him many months before that mysterious Monday in 1965.

    Marc was videorecorded talking in the year 2000. He says (present tense) that on that Monday morning, he arrived at the brownstone between 8:45 and 8:55 in the morning. Dorothy had asked him to show up at 9:00. Newspaper journalists got it wrong.

    The NYPD file says Dorothy's body was discovered by a maid. Neither it nor the medical examiner's office documents mention a hairdresser or the name Marc Sinclaire. Newspaper reports do mention "a hairdresser" but not his name. And the journalists royally screwed up the time frame for him finding his employer dead. It happened a few minutes before nine in the morning.

    1. Hi Kathleen, I'm reading Mark Shaw's book, 'The Reporter Who Knew Too Much ' right now. It's a fascinating read.

  5. This article should mention that the government of France owned the brownstone throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I don't know the exact years. They should be a matter of public record. Francois Mitterrand stayed there when he was in New York. Various French ambassadors to the United Nations lived there with spouses and children. In 1999, Nicolas Galey, his wife and their little boy lived on the third floor.