Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Joel W. Thorne House - 9 East 76th Street

In the last decade of the 19th century developer brothers William W. and Thomas R. Hall erected high-end speculative homes, most within the fashionable Upper East Side.  Although they most often erected just one mansion at a time, in 1895 they commenced work out a row of six, Nos. 9 through 19 East 76th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  Their architect, Alexander M. Welch, designed the row as three pairs--an A-A-B-B-A-A pattern.  They were completed in 1896.

The western-most house, No. 9, was a mirror image of No. 19 at the far end, and a near match to No. 11 next door.   Its neo-Renaissance design featured a rounded bay at the second floor which created a balcony at the third.  Carved lion heads adorned the unusual carved enframement which continued from the second through third floors.  As expected, they stared straight forward from the upper edge, but turned sideways along the sides.  The fourth floor was made especially handsome with an arcade of five openings separated by bulbous, twisted Corninthian columns.  The cornice was supported by an ornate row of cusped arches, above a frieze containing superbly carved scallop shells.

With only slight variations, Nos. 9 and 11 are nearly identical.

The Halls sold the house on March 24, 1896 to George Quintard Palmer.  The timing of his purchase no doubt had much to do with his upcoming marriage to Edna Earl Johnson less than a month later, on April 22.  Palmer would become President of the Alberger Pump Co.; President of the Newburgh Ice Machine & Engine Co.; and Vice President and Director of the Alberger Condenser Company.  

The Palmers remained in the 76th Street house for only four years.  George purchased the house at No. 1 East 76th Street, directly behind the Fifth Avenue mansion in which he grew up and on March 31, 1900 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that he had sold the 22-foot wide No. 9 to "a Mrs. Smith."  The New York Times placed the selling price at $80,000, or around $2.47 million in today's money.  That "Mrs. Smith" was the wife of Ormond Gerald Smith.  

Smith was president of the publishing firm of Street & Smith, co-founded by his father Francis Smith and Francis Scott Street.   He had joined the firm in 1883 after graduating from Harvard University.  He and his wife, the former Grace Hewitt Pellett, had one child, Gerald.

Like Palmer, Smith did not stay especially long in the house.  On January 13, 1907 the New-York Tribune reported that he had purchased the former Abernathy house at No. 39 West 56th Street, and as Palmer had done, "will tear down the building and put up a five story American basement house."

Smith sold No. 9 to Emily T. Lesher, the wife of banker Stephen R. Lesher.  The couple, who lived at No. 611 Fifth Avenue, purchased the mansion as an investment only.  In 1910 Emily leased it to wealthy bachelor Joel Wolf Thorne.   The signing of the lease knocked over the first domino in what would result in years of drama and publicity.

The New York Times described Thorne as "a well-known figure in society and club life in this city" and a "member of one of New York's oldest families."  The son of millionaire banker Samuel Thorne and a cousin of banker Oakleigh Thorne, Joel was heavily involved in western mining.

On November 2, 1911 The New York Times reported on a bizarrely-secret wedding in "one of the handsomest suites" in the Plaza Hotel.   Joel W. Thorne had married Mary Casey with only 14 persons present.  "So closely were the details of the wedding kept, by direction of Mr. Thorne himself, that even after the ceremony few about the hotel knew the identity of the couple.  It was especially desired that all news of the wedding should be withheld from the newspapers."

The Times was noticeably frustrated that no information on the bride could be obtained.  The article added "As far as could be learned last night, few members of Mr. Thorne's family were aware of the wedding and fewer attended it."  That was because Thorne's socially prominent family had vigorously protested his marriage.

The reason was Mary's background.  She was born on the very unfashionable Third Avenue.  Despite her humble childhood, she had struggled to improve her lot.  Saying "She is tall, has very dark hair and an Irish rose complexion," The Sun later explained "She worked her way through Barnard, where she specialized in psychology, was graduated in 1908, and received the degree of A. M. at Columbia."  When Joel Thorne fell in love with her she was teaching at Public School 49.  

In 1914 the couple's only child, Joel, Jr. was born.  Although the Thorne family still refused to accept the socially-inferior Mary, Joel's mother, Phoebe Thorne, did come to the 76th Street house to see her new grandson.  Mary later recalled that on that occasion she treated her "condescendingly."  She explained "She spoke unkindly about my religion, too, saying that the only persons she knew of that faith were in her kitchen."

Despite it all, Mary attempted to slip into polite society.  She studied singing under contralto Mariani Brandt, and worked with other socialites for the benefit of charities like the New York Home for Homeless Boys.
Mary Thorne poses with son Joel.  The Sun, April 26, 1918 (copyright expired)

The Thornes celebrated Joel's third birthday on October 16, 1917.  Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to Mary as she went to bed that night.  She later recalled that Joel "came in and kissed me.  I'm a good healthy sleeper.  I went right off to sleep.  In the morning he was gone.  His bed had not been slept in.  He had gone away without any clothes except those he was wearing.  He didn't even take an extra collar."

Although Mary was frantic about her husband's mysterious disappearance, the Thorne family was not.  Six months later Joel's brother, Samuel, a banker, responded to a reporter from The Sun saying "I do not know where Joel Thorne is just now.  Do you know where President Wilson is just now?  I don't recall when I saw him last, but am sure he's all right.  He has not disappeared."  The Thorne family's lawyer simply said he was "all right" and was "out West in business."

Mary had gone to the newspapers as her only hope.  The New-York Tribune reported she "summoned newspaper men to her luxurious home, 9 East Seventy-sixth Street," where she declared "that her husband's family did not like her and would not tolerate her socially, and she insisted that they knew where Mr. Thorne was."

She told the New-York Tribune on April 25, "I'm certain the Thorne family is hiding him from me.  They never liked me, and they would do anything to get my child from me, for he is one of the heirs to the Thorne millions."  She insisted "For the boy's sake, I regret this notoriety; but there was nothing left for me to do."

Getting her husband back would also mean she would again have financial support.  "He took away the three cars--one of which he had given me for my own--and stopped all my accounts.  I haven't had a cent of allowance since October," she told a reporter.  She was paying bills with the $40,000 in stock dividends she had managed to cash out.

Mary Thorne thought up another way to force her husband out of hiding.  The following week, on April 30, she went to the District Attorney's office and said "that she believed her husband...who has been missing since last October, was dead."  It was a clever ploy, since a declaration of death would mean that she and her son would inherit most of his fortune, leaving a still-living Joel W. Thorne penniless.

But the Thorne family was no less resourceful.  Because the months of stress were showing their effects on Mary's nerves, she contacted Dr. Seth Milliken, whom she had met around the time of Joel's disappearance.  He told her she did not need a tonic, but, as she later described, "a place where I could have regular hours, a diet and perfect quiet; in other words, a rest cure."

Milliken drove her to a facility on Central Park West where Mary overheard the man at the desk say "Why, this lady is in full possession of her mental faculties.  I don't want any damage suit.  I must decline to accept her as a patient."  Dr. Milliken then drove her to Bellevue Hospital where he told Mary she would "receive the best of treatment."

She was taken to the psychopathic ward, her clothing was taken from her, and she was put in a straitjacket.  Dr. Theron J. Vosburg diagnosed her with "maniacal depressive insanity."  The following day the long-missing Joel W. Thorne appeared at the hospital to consult with Dr. Vosburg.  He did not visit his wife. 

Mary was not permitted to communicate with anyone in the outside world.  Dr. Vosburg later admitted he had given orders "not to permit her to see any one."  But Mary somehow did manage to contact her lawyer.  A hearing was held in New York Supreme Court on June 12, 1918.  The following day The Sun ran the headline, "'Third Ave. Bride' Of Thorne Is Free."  Justice Geigerich's decision was diplomatic, not stepping on any high-powered toes.  "I do not think that this young woman should be detained.  But let me say in this connection that the city authorities acted in her case in the utmost good faith.  She is discharged."

Joel W. Thorne soon disappeared again, but this time he was not alone.  On August 24, 1918, Joel Jr.'s nurse took him out but they never returned.

Mary had no doubt that the boy's kidnapper was his father.  Seven months later, when no progress was made in the investigation, she again turned to the press.  On March 28, 1919 the New-York Tribune reported "Having failed to obtain the custody of her four-year-old son, Joel W. Thorne, jr., through habeas corpus proceedings, Mrs. Mary Casey Thorne, of 9 East Seventy-sixth Street, yesterday...offered $1,000 reward to any person giving her definite information about the whereabouts of the boy or actually placing him in her custody."

Mary was certain where he was being held.  The article noted "Mrs. Thorne was positive she saw her offspring on Tuesday watching the parade of the 27th Division from a window in the Fifth Avenue residence of his paternal grandmother, Mrs. Phoebe Thorne."  The family denied he was there.

In addition, she filed for legal separation from her husband, alleging "cruelty and abandonment."  Since no one seems to know where he was, the papers were served at the Thorne mansion on Fifth Avenue.  His response was lighting fast. 

The New-York Tribune reported "Joel Wolf Thorne, son and heir to the millions left by Samuel Thorne, banker, heretofore always the defendant in court proceedings between himself and Mrs. Mary Casey Thorne...assumed the offensive in the Supreme Court yesterday by suing his wife for a divorce."  His filing reflected a deeply-held enmity against Mary.

He named Raymond B. Wilson in the suit, saying he and Mary had engaged in "misconduct" in the 76th Street house.  (Ironically, Wilson, who was a professional bodyguard, had been hired by Mary's lawyer to guard the house to prevent accusations by the Thornes of illicit behavior.)   Thorne went on to demand full legal custody of their son, and further accused Mary of being a drunk.  He produced a bill from a Third Avenue liquor dealer for "Scotch whisky, gin, vermouth, brandy and stout," and claimed another Third Avenue dealer, Charles Daly, had delivered "180 bottles and seventy-two nips of stout" to No. 9 East 76th Street between March 14 and May 1, 1919.

Unfortunately for Mary, her servants testified on Thorne's behalf.  Although Mary's attorney, former judge John G. Dyer, reminded the jury that "back stairs gossip is completely and consistently denied," (perhaps hoping to introduce the possibility that the powerful Thornes had paid off the staff), the testimony of "loose and lascivious acts" prevailed.  Mary lost the case and any hope of getting her son back.

Mary, understandably, left No. 9 East 76th Street.  In May 1921 Emily Lesher sold it to William Adams Kissam for $90,000, just over $1.25 million today.  The New-York Herald announced on May 8 "The new owner will occupy after making extensive alterations."  Those alterations would all be internal.  Designed by architect F. P. Kelly, they included the installation of an elevator.

A nephew of Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt and the chairman of the board of the South American Development Co., Kissam had married the former Edith May Gale five years earlier.  He was 54-years old and she was 52 when they moved in.  Edith's first husband, Sewell Tappan Tyng, had died in 1913.  Her son by that marriage was now an adult, born in 1895.

The Kissams were prominent both in Manhattan society and in Southampton, where the maintained their summer estate.   Newspapers routinely reported on their entertainments in both locations.

Edith died in the 76th Street house on December 16, 1949.  A month later, on January 29, 1950, William died there at the age of 82.

Within the year the mansion was converted to a doctor's apartment and apartments.  Around 1954 it was purchased by the Lebanese Government as its permanent mission to the United Nations.  That, at times, resulted in disruption to the normally quiet residential block.

On September 7, 1972, for instance, The New York Times reported that "Last night more than 100 members of the Jewish Defense League demonstrated near the Lebanese mission to the United Nations at 9 East 76th Street.  Two men who forced their way through the crowd at a police barrier were taken into custody."

A similar protest occurred on May 17, 1974.  But by far the most frightening incident happened at around 9:30 on the night of July 5, 1982 when a pipe bomb exploded outside.  The explosive had been placed on the steps leading to the entrance.  A nearby doorman said "There was a big explosion and a huge cloud of smoke blew 10 to 15 feet in the air."

The blast occurred almost simultaneously with another at the French Mission on Fifth Avenue.  Police Officer David T. Hibert estimated that about two minutes separated the explosions.  He described the one on 76th Street saying "Glass shot across the street, and shattered the front glass of No. 10."

Only the Lebanese flag hints that the mansion is home to the Consul General.
The Lebanese Permanent Mission relocated to No. 866 United Nations Plaza before the end of the century and No. 9 East 76th Street became the private home of the Lebanese Consulate General.

photographs by the author

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