1915 was a year of turmoil and conflict. On the other side of the world a great war to end all wars was decimating European cities. The assassination on June 28 1914 of heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand by Serbian extremist Gavrilo Princip triggered the outbreak, although the rise of European nationalism accompanied by build-up of military might – in both weapons and great armies – had been brewing for over a hundred years. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, setting in motion a series of domino effects triggered by historic alliances between the countries and empires of Europe. Germany entered the war because of an alliance with Austria-Hungary. Serbia drew upon alliances with Russia, which sought support from France. As the German army swept through Belgium on its way to France, England entered the war to support Belgium. A bitter trench warfare saw millions of men on both sides fighting in appalling conditions, knee-deep in mud, bitterly cold, ill-fed, living and dying side by side sometimes mere metres from the enemy trenches. By the time this war was over, the scene had already been set for a second war to end all wars.
America watched anxiously as the ancestral homes of its various immigrant populations threw themselves into the Great War – the war to end all wars. Travel to the courts and society of Europe was curtailed, although some hardy souls felt it unnecessary to avoid England and the Atlantic crossings continued. American President Woodrow Wilson advocated an isolationist policy, seeing no reason to involve the new world in the implosion of the old world, and most politicians and civilians agreed with him. Some young men travelled to England and volunteered to fight alongside the British in the defence of the realm, but when a German submarine torpedoed passenger liner Lusitania, drowning thousands of American civilians off the coast of Ireland, the war came to America as well. The decoding of the so-called “Zimmermann note”, from German Ambassador to Mexico Arthur Zimmerman, which showed that Germany was urging Mexico to declare war on the US further strengthened the argument to join.
As Europe seethed, the Silverthornes and their extended family were also undergoing traumatic events. Alice, age 16 and home from school for the holidays, attempted suicide. While the details of the attempt have been hidden for the best part of a century, it is probable she took an overdose of the drugs and medication commonly prescribed in those days for a number of ailments.
Alice survived relatively unscathed, but the tissue of lies and deception that had been their happy and privileged family life was torn apart, dramatically changing the lives of all concerned. Suicide was as shocking then as now and for one so young, beautiful and privileged, in the background of Edwardian-era religious belief, was a deep wound to the family. Something was seriously wrong.
While Alice had a flair for the dramatic, this was both a serious attempt and a cry for help. Alice retired to the family home and apologies were made for social engagements, claiming illness. Given her mother’s fatal illness and the known contagion of consumptive illness, few outside the family suspected anything else could be wrong and sympathy was extended from afar. She was left to recuperate in peace – alone with her torment.
The extended family moved as one to eliminate this threat to Alice and the family name. Half-guessed truths and suspicions were finally aired and an awful story came to light. Allegations of incest and child abuse were laid at the door of her father. Whether they were true or not was barely the point – they spread like wildfore, as opnly the juiciest and most scandalous rumours can. The years of business trips to Europe unaccompanied by Louise, the stories of European nightclubs, inappropriate adult attire and cocktails, public drunkenness were put together and quickly hushed. For the sake of Alice’s future and that of the family it was important that such stains on the public good name be hidden. A young girl may be the victim in such situations but it was still seen as lowering her value on the marriage market and that was the only future open to girls from wealthy families. Paid work was strictly for the lower classes and spinsterhood was a poor second option, particularly spinsterhood with accompanied reputation.
Alice was withdrawn from Rosemary Hall over the holidays with no explanation given. She was made a ward of her maternal uncle Simeon Brooks Chapin (married to Louise’s sister Elizabeth), although she never lived with him and his family. Instead she moved back to Chicago to live with her two aunts, the widowed Alice Chapin May and Josephine Chapin and was enrolled in a finishing school near Washington. From this point on she listed her home address as with her aunts.
It can’t have been easy for these ladies (aged 35 and 25 respectively) to suddenly assume responsibility for the health, guidance and future of a troubled teenager, but they made the sacrifice. They were extremely close to Alice her whole life, visiting her regularly in her adulthood, even when she lived on a different continent. They would stand by her during the worst of her future public humiliation and notoriety, accompanying her to court and defending her reputation in the papers – even as they disliked even seeing their names in print. As they had loved her mother Julia, they loved and protected Alice, always providing her with a stable base and loving family. She had found safe harbour.
Poor Louise Mattocks Silverthorne was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter Patricia, during this time. Her only solace was that, unlike her mother’s humiliation, the disgrace was not publicly known. Privately she was tormented. The rumours that her husband had forsaken her for another – her own step-daughter – were everywhere. She had not suspected anything (or had she dismissed the suspicions as too terrible to give credence?) Meanwhile she was pregnant and had one small child and was not in a position to consider leaving her husband – particularly without making the disgrace known.
Louise also loved Alice and it cannot have escaped her notice how tormented she had become, how inappropriate she was for a girl of her age in an era of chaperoning, how her clothing and manner was too adult for the child she should have been. Some rumours had it that Louise was the one who found Alice after the overdose, a truly shocking experience for anyone. Louise was tied to William, for better, for worse, at least for the time being.
The family counsel met and decided how to handle the crisis. William, Louise and their growing family were exiled to Connecticut. William resigned from Western Felt Works and sold his shares to his brother in law Henry Faurot. This was the beginning of financial and social decline for the Silverthornes.
Alice never saw or spoke to her father again.
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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