When they took the air on the streets of New York, the handsome widower William and his beautiful daughter attracted admiring glances from the ladies of the town. When William travelled for work, Alice went with him, charming his business contacts with her pretty smile. She was dressed always in the best and most beautiful of children’s clothes, lace and ribbons pulling her shiny dark hair off her face, making the most of her grave eyes and serious demeanour.
She posed a considerable business advantage for William even at this early age, her shy smile and beautiful violet eyes charming the gruff businessmen. Canny Scotsman that he was in his genes and in his heart, William encouraged her and pressed his advantage.
While she spent most of her time with her father and governess, Alice was not without friends her own age. Alice’s Armour, Chapin and Faurot relatives doted on her and she became very close with her cousins Lolita Armour, Elizabeth Chapin and Julia Belle Faurot, with whom she visited and sometimes stayed. Their playgrounds were the mansions of Chicago’s newly rich and the country estates with mile-long drive ways, balconies and porticos, marble floors and grand staircases – places for hiding and places for fairytales – playing princess, waiting to be rescued by a handsome prince. The little girls attended the theatre and horse shows together, competing and applauding each other’s achievements, clapping politely as they watched Lolita’s mother, Chicago grand dame Mrs J Ogden Armour, present rosettes and ribbons to the winners.
Alice travelled with her father when his work took him overseas, charming his hosts and gaining an understanding and intimate knowledge of the world that many adults would envy. In 1908 they sailed to meet destiny in the form of a beautiful American woman in Paris. Little did Alice know that Paris would play such an important part in her life, the scene of the happiest, most dramatic and devastating chapters of her life. The trip to Paris in 1908 was just another journey to the already world-weary nine-year old.
A single, wealthy man, charming and glamorous with a hint of tragedy in his demeanour, William Silverthorne was a popular figure on the social scene, successful with the ladies. He was considered very eligible. Mothers lined up to introduce him to their daughters. He took as his second wife Chicago beauty Esther Louise Mattocks (known as Louise), who according to their daughter Patricia , had been on the stage – a fairly risque thing for the times when the word actress was another name for prostitute. Louise was lucky though – her provenance saved her from such gossip. She was the great-grand-daughter of the former Governor of Vermont, John Mattocks, after whom her father had been named.
She was described as one of the great beauties of the Mid-West in the late 1890s and her beauty had been praised in magazines and newspapers under the heading “Women of Peerless Beauty”. She had beautiful eyes and an elegant profile, her hair bobbed and layered in a flapper style, waves of shiny chestnut hair framing her face. Louise was considered a catch, although the society papers congratulated her on stealing a march on her peers when she announced her engagement to William Silverthorne.
Louise Mattocks was in Paris with her mother, Mrs SF Dickinson, formerly Mrs Sarah Mattocks. They were putting distance between them and a scandal brewing back home where Louise’s mothers’ second husband, Colonel Dickinson was reported to be quite publicly enjoying the company of a female guest in the unfortunately named French Lick Springs, far from the restrictive eyes of his wife. Mrs Dickinson could not pretend she didn’t know about the affair – it was reported in the newspapers and was a topic of excited gossip and exaggerated sympathy amongst her friends and neighbours. The European holiday allowed her to avoid having the shame rubbed in her face every day.
While the tour of the Continent was a panacea for Mrs Dickinson’s woes, she had other pressing issues on her mind. Her daughter, whose beauty had been trumpeted in magazines, was still unmarried and unattached at age 32. After more than a decade of the humiliation of attending her friends’ weddings as an endless bridesmaid, Mrs Dickinson took Louise to Paris to seek a husband in fresh grounds. Here Louise’s brief flirtation with the stage was unknown and eligible young men were said to be looking for the clean looks and style – not to mention fortune – that an American girl could offer. Her wilful nature would be seen as the fresh American attitude and energy to revitalise tired blood-lines in the old world.
As often happens when travelling abroad, they found themselves with friends from home and fate came for Louise in the form of William Silverthorne.
William and Louise had known each other since Louise was a young girl. Her sister Elizabeth was married to Simeon Brooks Chapin, brother of William’s first wife, Julia Belle Chapin. Why had they not been matched in America? Possibly they were just not in the same city at the same time. But probably Louise Mattock’s mother had higher ambitions for her beautiful daughter than a widowed older (he was 41 when they married) relation already encumbered by a child. Like many an upper middle class mother, she was probably seeking a young man with a fortune, the scion of an old family, not somebody else’s leftovers. One daughter had already married into the Chapin family. But despite her charms and attractions Louise had not managed to catch such a trophy and matters were more desperate now. Rather than return from Paris with her spinster daughter in tow, William Silverthorne must have seemed the ideal solution. He was still handsome, charming and wealthy. And the child Alice was adorable and engaging if somewhat spoilt.
William and Louise were married in Paris within a couple of months of being reintroduced. Nine-year old Alice accompanied them on their honeymoon. Mrs and Mrs WE Silverthorne and (child) Silverthorne signed the manifest of the Kaiserin Augusta Victoria, sailing from Southampton and arriving in New York on September 12 1908. They were just in time to celebrate Alice’s ninth birthday on American soil. The bride was listed (incorrectly) as being 40 years old.
How did young beautiful and wilful Louise Mattocks find being a stepmother? Alice had been the apple of her father’s eye, the centre of his world, doted upon by a large family and servants, all trying to make up for the sadness of her mother’s death. The household revolved around keeping her entertained and happy. William took his daughter on business trips and overseas, dressing her in sophisticated lace dresses and exhibiting her at European nightclubs, much to the disapproval of the Armour family and the mothers of Alice’s friends.
Accounts written later in Alice’s life say that Louise Mattocks Silverthorne put her foot down to curb Alice’s spoilt ways. Whatever their difficulties at the time of their marriage, in later years however they were seen to be very close. In the 1920’s and 1930’s Louise Mattocks Silverthorne crossed the Atlantic to be nearer to Alice and lived next door to her in London for a time while her children got an English education. Louise’s daughter Patricia says that her mother had wanted her to be like her glamorous half sister Alice, encouraging her in her own romance with a French nobleman.
As an adult Alice was less like her quiet dutiful mother and much more like her headstrong stepmother, who had taken risks with her reputation and enjoyed herself. Alice also took risks, following her heart and experiencing great emotional heights of love and passion – and the depths of despair, betrayal and depression. While the newspapers peddled the wicked stepmother story, printing column inches on how Louise had been jealous of Alice, in fact they were close, and Louise supported her emotionally through the trials that dogged Alice in her later life and brought her notoriety on three continents.
Louise Mattocks became pregnant within two years of her marriage and produced a baby. After the long barrenness of his first marriage with the invalid Julia, this must have seemed a good omen for William. The new baby also cemented Louise’s maternal position in the family, no longer there at William’s pleasure, but now a mother by inarguable right. Did Alice understand this?
Pregnancy was a lottery at the best of times in this time. Inadequate medical care could provide neither pain relief nor life saving procedures. Infant and maternal deaths were common. Louise and William’s joy at the birth of their new baby turned to grief when the infant ailed and died quickly, unnamed and unbaptised. In an age when it was thought best that the mother forget and move on rather than grieve for a lost babe, even this baby’s gender has been obliterated by uncaring time.
In 1912 another baby was born. He was a healthy strong baby boy and was named William Edward after his father. Then another tragedy in 1914, a daughter, Victoria Louise also died in infancy.
In all Louise bore five babies, half brothers and sisters for Alice. Only two survived to adulthood. Two died in infancy and one died age 5 years. In an era of high infant mortality this was not an uncommon occurrence (although 60% mortality was significantly high) but each eagerly anticipated and blessed birth ending with a tiny wooden coffin lying on the church altar and lowered into the cold New York earth was no doubt a tragedy for both Louise and William. Alice, age 11 when the first baby died was aware of what was happening, a harsh lesson on the facts of life before antibiotics and vaccines when illnesses now considered trivial could easily claim the life of even the strongest baby.
The teenage Alice was bored at home. As an only child she had no great interest in babies. Her half-siblings were considerably younger than she and while they provided some distraction, they were not companions to her. The constant pregnancies and growing brood meant Louise Silverthorne was not travelling with William for business, but remained at home.
Alice resumed travelling with her father, travelling to Europe where he dressed her in lace and took her to nightclubs where she developed a taste for cocktails. She was reported to be seen walking a panther in a diamond studded collar down the streets of Paris, then beginning to develop its reputation as a city of sin. These were not seen as appropriate activities for an American girl in her early teenage years.
Prior to World War One, the Great War, Europe seemed a long way away from America. However, gossip travels quickly even across water, and reports of Alice’s inappropriate activities travelled back from Europe to Louise Silverthorne waiting at home with her infant son and successive pregnancies. When it started to be reported in newspapers she was not able to dismiss the gossip so easily.
Louise put her foot down and deemed it no longer appropriate for Alice to travel as her father’s companion. Instead she was sent away to school. No record remains of her early years so this seems to have been her first school. She attended Rosemary Hall, now part of Choate Rosemary Hall, from 1913-1915. The all-girls environment was considered a safe place to park her while William and Louise concentrated on their infant son and expanding their brood.
Their choice of school was interesting and non-traditional, looking to the future and recognising the talents and potential of their daughter, reflecting the influence of the very modern Louise Mattocks Silverthorne on her step-daughter’s education. Rosemary Hall in Greenwich Connecticut had been established by the notable Caroline Ruutz-Rees. A prominent member of the National Women’s Suffrage Movement, Miss Ruutz-Rees taught her students to be career women as well as wives, to practice “feminism by indirection”. She drew on the traditions of English education from her own girlhood to model a school unlike any other of the time. She established the wearing of uniforms in a time when this was not usually a requirement at girls’ schools .
The philosophy that she tried to impart to students was to ‘shoot straight, speak the truth and have a regard for intellectual life’ , a philosophy that imprinted itself on the adolescent Alice. Many of the school virtues would later be used to describe Alice – she was unafraid, hated injustice, and despised dishonesty.
The school catered for approximately one hundred students, all but a handful boarders. Alice shared a twin bedroom with another girl in the junior cottage of twelve girls. They shared a sitting room and were supervised by a teacher and serviced by maids who lived on the school grounds. The following year when she returned from summer holidays just prior to her 15th birthday, she was in a cottage with the older girls.
The school had a rigorous academic curriculum centre around English, Latin and Mathematics with Science (Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Physiology), German, History, Drawing, French, Sight-singing, Diction, History of Art, and Landmarks in European Civilisation. The schedule of activities ran from rising at 6.55am to retiring at 9.30pm with lessons from 8.35 to 9.15pm, six days a week with Wednesday and Saturday afternoons off from 2.15pm onwards. Certainly a more structured and rigorous life than Alice was used to.
Students were encouraged to participate in all the sports for which they were considered fit – there is no indication that they ever managed to tempt Alice onto the hockey fields! However there was also an open-air riding ring with an instructor skilled in dressage and jumping, gymnastics and dancing, and in winter, ice-skating and tobogganing. Perhaps these were more to Alice’s taste.
Alice bloomed. She perfected the flawless French that would stand her in such good stead in Parisian Society and put some cultural context to her wide travels with her father. She discovered her literary and musical talents – she was a gifted guitarist, developed her singing and took part in the glee club. She was elected an editor on the school magazine, the surrealistically named “?” (Question Mark). A photograph of the school editorial committee shows a group of solid respectable girls dressed identically in school uniform forming two straight rows. At the rear on the left, slightly out of step with the other girls, stands Alice. She has her tie pulled down and slightly askew so her collar hangs open, and she looks slightly amused comapred to some of the serious countenances of some of the other girls. Her unusually symmetrical beauty is visible. The bland school uniform, designed to eliminate identity and sublimate any budding sexuality was inadequate for the task of making Alice conform. She looks chic. But she also looks mischievous.
The magazine was a passion for her, something she was good at and was really interested in. Artistic pursuits were a reasonable talent for a girl to pursue before her marriage and later use to entertain her husband, so they met with the approval of her family. Alice submitted prose and poetry articles for her school magazine even after she had left the school. One sentimental piece tells of a child watching the silver moonbeams dancing on a lake and fantasising it is a dead mother come to visit, making Daddy cry. Another, a lullaby inspired by Kipling’s City of Sleep, tells of an idyllic land of dreams where sadness and boundaries fade away and dreamers drift along on a silvery sea surrounded by petals of roses and violets. The emotions of adolescence, mixed with a sadness and longing for the mother she had barely known mixed with darker sorrows and knowledge that a young girl oughtn’t have known were already surfacing in Alice, setting a course for a tempestuous emotional life.
The school aimed to prepare the girls for college education whilst providing a “thoroughly liberal” education. No girl was allowed to graduate without qualifying for admission to college under the Bryn Mawr College Entrance Examination and Rosemary Hall also had certificating privileges for those students who elected to attend Smith or Vassar. Despite the choice of school Alice was not destined for the world of academia. She left Rosemary Hall suddenly, the summer before her sixteenth birthday, prior to the examinations, to attend a finishing school in the Washington area. Perhaps she had decided academia was not for her.
Something that happened over the holidays changed her course, something that had been brewing for some time and finally came to a head in a way that could no longer be ignored or hidden from the family and society at large. The same traumatic events that would haunt her life and her relationships and drive a wedge between her father and herself, made her want to run away.
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Alice’s uncle Henry Faurot played an integral part in the Silverthorne family fortunes that would shape Alice’s inheritance. As well as marrying Catherine Silverthorne, he was a partner in the Silverthorne businesses. Through his work with PD Armour he identified the opportunity that resulted in the Western Felt Works, the industry that provided serious money to the Silverthorne brothers and set them up in an industry that would survive the changes happening in the early twentieth century.
But most importantly, it was Henry Faurot who provided the introduction between the nouveau riches William Edward Silverthorne, his brother in law, and Julia Belle Faurot, the beautiful and delicate grand-daughter of PD Armour, lion of the Chicago social register. In 1892 William Silverthorne made a familial coup with his marriage to Julia, PD Armour’s grand-daughter through his only daughter Marietta and her meatpacker husband Emery D Chapin.
While Julia’s daughter Alice would garner thousand of column inches across the newspapers of three continents, front page headlines and multi-page feature articles with photographic spreads, Julia Belle Chapin Silverthorne barely rated a mention in the newspapers of the time. Julia’s mother Marietta Armour Chapin, an Armour heiress no less, likewise adhered to the strict Edwardian code that a lady’s name should only appear in print at her birth, marriage, birth of children and death. Indeed, so scrupulous in their observance of this code were Julia and Marietta, that many of these events also passed unmarked by the social chroniclers of the day.
Marietta had been brought up in the grandeur of the Armour’s South Michigan Avenue mansion, a huge dark Gothic structure half covered in ivy. Her life was carefully controlled, chaperoned and insulated from the harsh realities of her father’s business ventures. As an only daughter, her role in life was to make an advantageous match. Her reputation had to be absolutely beyond reproach. With her father in industry, there were too many strikes against her marrying into the old families of the social establishment already.
Wrought iron fences and gates surrounded the Armour city mansion, keeping reality at arm’s length. Visitors would drive up to the portico, where the butler was waiting to assist them to alight, protected from the harsh Chicago weather, and the grime and poverty of the Chicago streets. Above the portico, a large balcony afforded a view of the wide tree-lined avenue while in fine weather passing carriages could watch Marietta and her friends, parading in the fashionable pale colours of debutantes, taking in the pale afternoon sunlight in sharp relief against an arch of stained-glass. On either side, massive semi-circular bay windows extended up three floors to the domed roof. Below, basement windows peeked above the manicured grass. The house bore every possible embellishment to make it more imposing on a grand scale. PD Armour needed to make a statement of position and power and the Armour mansion dominated in this respect.
Marietta was the third of the four children of Phillip Danforth Armour and his wife, the formidable Juliana Brooks Armour. Despite the conspicuous wealth, Marietta was brought up to be modest, thrifty and to marry well. While her brothers learned about running businesses, Marietta was taught how to run a household by her efficient, no-nonsense mother. She was well provided for in her marriage but the bulk of the Armour fortune had remained intact and with the early death of PD Armour Jnr, the eldest son, the money, businesses and properties passed to the next son Jonathon Ogden Armour under the strict laws of primogeniture. PD Armour had been uncertain of the abilities of his second son to keep the business afloat and even went so far as to proscribe the next two generations of inheritance. The new world may have valued a meritocracy but in terms of keeping fortunes together, they recognised the benefits of the old ways.
Marietta could not have pleased her father more with her choice of husband. Emery David Chapin had the entrepreneurial streak that Armour valued. In 1856 he had established a wholesale grocery business in Milwaukee, but returned to Chicago and in 1880 was engaged in the pork packing firm of Chapin and Cudahy. The meatpacking industry had been very good to PD Armour and there was no reason to expect it would not likewise support his daughter and any offspring in comfort. While the Chapins were also in industry they had a greater claim to the establishment. Emery was the grandson of John Putnam Chapin, 8th Mayor of Chicago and a descendant of Deacon Samuel Chapin, a founding father of Springfield Massachusetts whose contributions to the community are memorialised with a statue in Court Square Springfield.
Armour’s faith was on shaky ground though. Chapin’s dealings as a Board of Trade operator were less successful than the meat industry and when he died in 1882 he left Marietta $40,000 of unpaid debts. Julia’s brother, Simeon Brooks Chapin, only a schoolboy at the time of his father’s death, paid his father’s estate’s debts in full in 1900, much to the surprise of the creditors who had long since given up on seeing their money. Family honour was restored.
(More on the life of Simeon Brooks Chapin is available here.)
Despite Emery’s poor financial position at his death, his widow Marietta Chapin left an estate of $500,000 when she died fifteen years after him in 1897, perhaps due to her family’s inheritance. (Julia Chapin Silverthorne received $50,000 plus a division of the balance of her mother’s estate after other gifts.)
Marietta and Emery had three surviving children, Alice (December 28th 1858), Simeon Brooks (May 31st 1865) and Julia Belle (August 14th 1871). (There were two other live births, Florence born March 3rd 1861 and died in infancy and Henry Franklin born April 6th 1863 and died age 9 in 1872.) By all accounts they were a close family. Julia named her only daughter Alice after her beloved older sister, and later when she needed rescuing, her Uncle Simeon and Aunt Alice went beyond the call of duty to step in and care for the teenaged Alice.
The task of caring for their ailing mother fell to the eldest daughter, Alice Chapin. She remained unmarried until after Marietta’s death and was left the house in Marietta’s will to safeguard her future. While her mother remained sick at home, Alice Chapin involved herself in charity work but her social life was somewhat curtailed by her home duties.
After her mother’s death she accepted the offer of marriage from Mr Francis Edwin May, President of the Indiana Oil and Natural Gas Company, a wealthy bachelor only eleven years older than her. They married in 1900 and lived in Chicago. At age 42 it had seemed that she was destined for a life of spinsterhood and the late marriage was greeted positively by her siblings. The marriage seems to have been a happy one, and the couple travelled abroad regularly. When he died 10 years later leaving no children, Alice moved her spinster niece Josephine Chapin in as a companion and embarked upon a widowhood freed of the implications and restrictions of spinsterhood.
Julia’s brother Simeon B Chapin, after working for Armour and Co for a number of years, became a Wall Street stockbroker, a prominent banker and businessmen in New York and Chicago, maintaining a home on Fifth Avenue and country residences at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Myrtle Beach NY and Pinehurst, North Carolina. He married Elizabeth Mattocks, whose family was to have an integral part in the life of his as yet unborn, niece Alice Silverthorne. The oldest of Simeon and Elizabeth’s four children, Simeon Brooks Chapin Junior bought out his father’s chair on the stock exchange when Simeon Senior as ready to retire. The Chapins were major stockholders in Armour and Company.
The exact circumstances of the meeting between William Edward Silverthorne and Julia Belle Chapin has been lost in the vagaries of time, but their lives had been connected for some time.
Chicago society was a series of circles moving within circles. Just as New York had Mrs Astor’s 400, an exclusive social set who met and re-met in a series of unending social functions where only the host and the seating arrangements changed, so Chicago had its own inner circles. The wealthy social elite were neighbours, living in grand mansions on exclusive avenues. They holidayed in the same places, had country estates at Lake Forest, though none so grand as the Armours’. The so-called classless society was creating its own classes and shoring up the boundaries to keep the others out.
The husbands did business together; the wives lunched together and plotted the courses of their daughters’ debutant seasons leading inevitably to marriage with each other’s sons. That Julia and William met was inevitable and they may well have known each other for many years. Having PD Armour’s protégée Henry Faurot as a brother in law no doubt oiled the social wheels and improved handsome entrepreneurial William Silverthorne’s standing in the eyes of Julia’s family. It seems likely that Henry Faurot was instrumental in William and Julia together, and certainly in vouching for William’s good character with her widowed mother Marietta and her protective grandfather, PD Armour. The Scottish heritage shared by the Silverthornes and the Armours may have helped – PD Armour was proud of his Scottish blood and was a noted contributor to the Illinois Saint Andrew Society.
The warmth of the pale Chicago sun put a little colour in Julia’s ivory skin on the beautiful June day of their wedding. The veil concealed her frail beauty as her father walked her down the aisle to the arms of the minister and her waiting bridegroom. Her dark eyes shone with joy, and perhaps something more. They may not have known she was fatally ill at this stage – how could someone so young and beautiful be dying? Julia was a devoted wife and much loved by her family and friends. No fewer than two nieces were named after her, Julia Belle Chapin and Julia Belle Faurot.
After their 1892 wedding Julia and William moved to the relative anonymity of Buffalo, New York and lived quietly with two servants.
The Silverthorne family continued to move from success to success in the business-world, while William and Julia travelled and enjoyed their quiet lives. Despite their happiness, it was seven long years before Alice was born on 28 September 1899, just in time for the new century. In an era with 10% infant mortality, the production of many children was the aim of every marriage, in the hope that some would survive. Infertility was inexplicable and incurable. The birth of Alice was a blessed and long-awaited event.
The bloodlines and fortunes of four prominent families, the Silverthornes, Armours, Faurots and Chapins, came together to give her a good start in life. From these solid hardworking pillars of the community, this no-nonsense sturdy immigrant stock, came the changeling Alice. Petite, pale with enormous violet eyes and a charming gamine way, she was a much wanted, and as it turned out, only child. A German nurse joined the household to care for the precious infant.
Having waited so long for their blessed daughter, William and Julia took her everywhere with them. Beloved of both parents, Alice’s childhood was privileged. She travelled with them to Chicago to visit both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, interstate on business, overseas. In the excitement that ship-board life with all its diversions and entertainments can offer a small child, she was probably unaware of the purpose of their travels. The frequent overseas trips were a desperate search to cheat the inevitable. Julia was dying a slow lingering death from consumption.
Consumption, the old name for tuberculosis, was a scourge. Respecting no boundaries, it affected the wealthy and the poor alike, young and old. In the 1900’s in America tuberculosis claimed 194 lives for every 100,000 people. Sufferers coughed and coughed, spreading the disease to their carers and loved ones, coughing up their lungs in chunks of blood, unable to stop. They hid their condition, fearing the social isolation, dreadful conditions and almost definite death-sentence of incarceration in government run sanatoriums. Once breathed in it formed granulomas on the lungs, capsules of live bacteria sitting like lethal time-bombs ready to reactivate, enter the bloodstream and colonise elsewhere in the body – maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, maybe in twenty years time. In the days before antibiotics, the so-called white plague was incurable and lingering death was inevitable.
But how could one give up on someone so young, so beautiful, so vibrant? William and Julia desperately sought treatments and rest cures from the top doctors in America and Europe. In 1904 they took Alice and her nurse with them to the sea-cures at Cuxhaven, Germany. The treatments were to no avail.
Tragedy struck early in the life of little Alice when her mother died in 1907 in Buffalo NY. She left eight year old Alice a $200,000 estate in trust and a lifelong case of consumption. Distraught at the loss of his beautiful young wife, William retired from Silverthorne and Co and moved with Alice from Buffalo to New York City. Alice, William’s only connection to the beautiful young wife he had lost, became his closest companion.