Thursday, December 24, 2020

The 1915 Blanche Wagstaff House - 4 East 65th Street


The distracting top floor was added in 1929.

In 1900 William and Anna Barnes Bliss erected two abutting mansions at Nos. 6 and 8 East 65th Street.  Designed by the firm of Hiss & Weekes, the Bliss family would live in the smaller of the two sumptuous Beaux Arts residences, No. 6.

The Bliss house is to the right.  

In 1914 Anna B. Bliss embarked on another building project.  She purchased and demolished the outdated brownstone next door at No. 4, and hired architect Thomas Nash to design a modern replacement.  Rather than Beaux Arts, which was falling from favor, Nash turned to the currently popular neo-Federal style.  He traded historic accuracy for homogeneity by facing it not in red brick, as would have been expected, but in limestone to match the earlier houses.

Unlike the high-stooped brownstone it replaced, the new mansion was designed on the American basement plan--with the entrance just two steps above the sidewalk.   It was framed by engaged Scamozzi columns which upheld a formal, dentiled pediment and wreath and swag carvings.  The three planar faced floors above the rusticated base were sparsely decorated, the significant interest being the two sets of French doors at the second floor, or piano nobile, fronted by iron Juliette balconies and set within arches ornamented with carved cornucopia.   The two uppermost floors sat back from the stone cornice.

On April 29, 1907 Blanche Le Roy Shoemaker was married to Alfred Wagstaff, Jr. in her parents home at No. 26 West 53rd Street.  Blanche had been presented to the Court of St. James following her debut and later, according to The Evening Telegram, "she was received in private audience by Pope Pius."

The socially-prominent newlyweds would not need to worry about where to live.  The New York Times reported "Col. Wagstaff has given a cottage at Islip to his son as a wedding gift," and Blanche's mother (also named Blanche) purchased a townhouse for her daughter at No. 24 East 54th Street.

But when things did not go well for the young couple Blanche Shoemaker stepped in again.  On February 24, 1916 the New York Herald entitled an article "Woman Buys Costly House for a Gift to Her Daughter," and reported that she had purchased No. 4 East 65th Street from Anna B. Bliss "as a gift to her daughter, Mrs. Alfred Wagstaff, Jr." for $275,000--more than $6.6 million in today's money.  The article pointed out the exclusive neighborhood, saying that it stood "opposite the [John Jacob] Astor mansion" and that Blanche would have as her new neighbors the Blisses, James J. Hill, M. Orme Wilson and William Watts Sherman.

This portrait of Blanche was painted in 1905 by French artist Theobald Chartran.  image via

It may have been the bride's youth that contributed to the failed marriage (she was 19 at the time), or simply her self reliance.  Blanche was already a recognized name in the literary field.  She had begun writing poetry as a child and her first poem had been sold to Town & Country magazine three years before the wedding.   Unlike other society brides, she insisted on a career and served briefly as the associate editor of the literary magazine, The International, and published volumes of her own poetry.  By the time she moved into the 65th Street house, she was editor of the Boston-based Poetry Journal and her play Alcentis had been produced.

Blanche's involvement with The International came to a crashing end when she butted heads with her close friend and the publication's founder, George Sylvester Viereck, over his ardent support of Germany as World War I erupted.  That heated rift may have contributed to her decision to join the war effort in 1917.  

Only a year after moving into her new mansion, she closed it.  On December 3, 1917 the New York Herald reported "Mrs. Alfred Wagstaff, Jr., has gone to France to drive an ambulance for the American Girls' Aid Hospital, twelve miles from the western front."  A thoroughly 20th-century woman, Blanche had obtained her State license as a mechanic.  The article said, "She has driven an automobile in nearly all parts of the world, and has ridden motorcycles, hence she thinks she is equipped to transport the wounded."  To make certain, Blanche financed her own "specially built ambulance."

Blanche's mother had retained the title to the 65th Street house.  While Blanche was in France she leased it to a succession of millionaires like the Moses Taylors, James A. Blaire and his wife, and in June 1919, to Thomas B. Yuille and his family.  

Yuille had been president of the American Tobacco Company until 1916.  He had stepped down to become president of the Universal Leaf Tobacco Company.   He and his wife, the former Nanny W. Long, had four daughters.  The Yuille's country estate, Quankey, was in Bronxville, New York.  

Once back in America, Blanche Wagstaff briefly returned to No. 4 East 65th Street.  She and her husband had never divorced, but it was most likely her romance with real estate Donald Carr that prompted her to take care of that detail in December 1920.  

Seven months later, on July 31, 1921 The Evening Telegram announced the Blanche and Carr had been married at her country home, Bide-a-Wee, in Manchester, Vermont.  The article noted "A feature of the ceremony was the reading by the clergyman of one of the bride's poems called 'Marriage.'"  The New York Times recounted some of the Blanche's exploits.  "She has traveled extensively in Italy and in the Orient and has made several campaign trips in the great Sahara desert."

Blanche Shoemaker sold No. 4 the following year to Harold C. Matthews who paid the equivalent of $3.2 million today.  He quickly resold it to Dr. Arthur Balwin Duel who installed a doctor's office in the first floor.  He lived and worked from the house until 1928 when he sold it to Henry "Harry" Pomeroy Davison, a banker with J. P. Morgan & Co.

Davison and his wife, the former Anne Stillman, had three sons, Harry, Jack and James.  Their country home, Appledore, was at Oyster Bay, Long Island.  Within months of moving in Davis hired architect Robert Cowrie to add a penthouse level to the mansion.  

The Davisons remained in the house for a decade, selling it in 1939 to a real estate operator.  The following year The New York Sun reported "The former town home of Harry P. Davison, at 4 East Sixty-fifth street, has been remodeled into nine suites of two, three and four-room duplex and triplex apartments."

The New York Sun, October 1940

Among the first of the well-heeled tenants was playwright and producer Moss Hart, who leased a duplex apartment in June 1942.  In December 1943 Hart left town for the weekend, as did his neighbor, Count Vincent Orssich.  Both men would come home to a shocking surprise.

On December 16 The New York Sun reported "Several thousand dollars' worth of jewelry, clothing, liquor and valuable mementos were stolen from the luxurious apartments of Moss Hart, prominent theatrical producer and author, and former Austrian cavalry officer, Count Vincent Orssich at 4 East 65th Street.  After briefly checking for missing items, Hart estimated the theft at $10,000, while Orssich placed his loss at $6,000--a total haul of about $235,000 today.  The article said:

Among the articles stolen from Mr. Hart were a number of souvenirs of sentimental value.  They included an expensive cigarette case given to him by Zeppo Marx, a pair of cufflinks which had belonged to the late Alexander Wollcott, a golden tray given to Mr. Hart by the cast of "Lady in the Dark" and a string of hearts which formerly belonged to Gertrude Lawrence.

Count Orssich had lost "clothing and several pairs of expensive shoes, jewelry and ten quarts of Scotch whisky."

On August 10, 1946 Hart married actress Kitty Carlisle and the couple continued to live in the 65th Street apartment.  Early in November burglars again tried force entrance into the suite but, according to The New York Times, "were frightened away."

The following month they would be more successful.  The Harts went to their country home in New Hope, Pennsylvania for Christmas.  On Christmas Eve their butler, Charles Mathies, returned to New York, "bringing with him expensive wedding gifts," according to The New York Times.  When the Harts walked into the apartment on Christmas night they found that "patient burglars during the early hours of Christmas Day thoroughly [had] thoroughly ransacked the duplex apartment."  This time they escaped with $25,000 "worth of clothing, jewelry, Christmas and wedding gifts."

As Hart looked over the wreckage of his apartment he pronounced it "A spectacular return engagement."  Police theorized that the crooks gained access by ringing the bells downstairs until someone buzzed them in.  Hart sighed, "They didn't miss a thing."

Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle Hart outside a theater in 1961.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

They had taken every item of clothing from the apartment, including 14 suits and six overcoats belonging to Hart and taking all of Kitty Carlisle's coats--a sable, a white fox, a broadtail, a mink cape and a beaver cape--leaving her with only the one she wore.  The New York Times added, "The thieves also took several gold cigarette cases, her father's diamond watch fob, a gold bracelet and a gold pin presented to her by the producers of a show."  

They also made away with a Georgian tea set and a silver service given them by the Ira Gershwins.  Because all of the silverware was now gone, the butler brought knives, forks and spoons from his apartment so his employers could have breakfast, and he loaned Hart two suits.

"The playwright phoned Danny Kaye, the comedian.  Mr. Kaye provided a suit and an overcoat.  Both have the same tailor, and wear the same size clothing," said the article.  The Sun placed the value of the lost items at $196,000 in today's money.

In February 1926 socialite Gertrude Nelson had founded the contract bridge group, the Nelson Bridge Club.  For the next 25 years until her death it "attracted some of New York's finest players," according to The New York Times.  On February 1, 1964 the newspaper announced, "Today the Nelson club will be reopened at 4 East 65th Street under the management of the founder's son, Carter Nelson, who hopes to revive the sociable atmosphere of the original club."

The basement and first floor were officially converted to a club in 1969, but returned to apartments in 1972.  Outwardly the sedate facade gives little hint that the building is no longer a private mansion.

photographs by the author


  1. Maybe a "society bride" instead of a "socialist bride"? In either case, Blanche sounds like someone I'd have liked to have known.

    1. Whoa! Thanks for catching that! And, yes, Blanche must have been a fascinating woman.