The ‘Gilded Rage’ a.k.a. my hometown's gossipy connection to a Pulitzer Prize novelist.
In Claremont NH, we have Paran Stevens (1802-1872) to thank for the high school that bears his name. Grandson of a Revolutionary War Colonel, Stevens began his
hospitality career with a coffee shop in Boston. This led to ownership of the Revere House Hotel and the Tremont here in town. Stevens’ shrewd management led to the leasing of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York and the construction of the Continental in Philadelphia. By the 1850s, Stevens had amassed a fortune totaling well over five million. A widower, Stevens also acquired a much younger second wife with a shrewd management style all her own.
Hailing from Lowell, Massachusetts, Marietta Reed was a “pretty peachy-faced” girl who took rapidly to the good life Paran provided for her. It was said that Mrs. Stevens gave “some of the finest dinners; her wines are of the best; her chef has few superiors, and her hospitality is unbounded.” Marietta Stevens had ambitious plans for her daughter Minnie, born in 1853, and son Henry Leydon born in 1859. The family settled in New York, purchasing a mansion that took up an entire city block. That mansion had belonged to a woman named Mrs. Mary Mason Jones. She’d refused to receive the arrogant Marietta Stevens in her home. This became reason enough for Marietta to buy it when Mrs. Jones was barely in her grave. The old-money neighbors referred to Mrs. Stevens as ‘the grocer’s daughter.’ Think Julian Fellowes’ character Bertha Russell in his recently televised, The Gilded Age. Bertha is called the ‘potato digger’s daughter’. Art never drifts far from the tidal pool of life. It should be mentioned that Mrs. Mary Mason Jones was the great aunt of acclaimed author Edith Wharton. And here’s where the true tie begins.
Nurtured by generational wealth and the books in her father’s vast library, Edith Newbold Jones made her social debut in a private ballroom on Fifth Avenue. Such a
setting was preferred over the extravaganzas the new money arrivistes were creating at public places such as Delmonico’s. For the seventeen-year-old Edith, the evening was “a long cold agony of shyness.” Shortly after her official nudge into society, Edith fell into ‘an understanding’ with the nouveau riche Henry Leydon Stevens. Edith’s friends called Henry her ‘constant shadow.’ Most were certain the two wouldn’t last. With time and patience, Henry became a family friend, despite the often whispered truth that his mother was orchestrating a marriage between Henry’s sister Minnie (seen here on the right) and British royalty. Minnie costumed herself as Cleopatra at a Devonshire House Ball.
Her gold and gem-encrusted gown was made by the House of Worth in Paris and cost, at that time, over $6,000.00. Two other guests were also costumed as Cleopatra that evening. Check out Minnie’s image on the National Portrait Gallery website. Without a doubt, Minnie Stevens ‘out-royaled’ them all. Beloved by court as ‘The Great Heiress’ and befriended by the Prince of Wales himself, Minnie wove her way through several marriage proposals before accepting General Rt. Hon. Sir Arthur Henry Fitzroy Paget, grandson of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey. Her frustrated mother returned to New York believing Minnie could do better.
In August of 1882, Edith, now twenty, and Henry became engaged. Henry was twenty-
three and two years shy of receiving his multi-million dollar inheritance. By October, however, the engagement was called off. Mrs. Stevens, seen here appropriately scowling, put an end to the match. Her reasoning, according to some, was the snub the old-monied New Yorkers had given her. Those closer to the scene believed it was all about controlling Henry’s money. In April of 1885, Edith married Edward Robbins Wharton. It was, for the most part, an unhappy union. That same year, Henry succumbed to tuberculosis. Mrs. Stevens would end up with his money.
The strongest of memories do linger. Thirty-four years later, Edith Wharton would immortalize Marietta Stevens in shame as the model for the social climbing Mrs. Lemuel Struthers in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence. Mrs. Stevens and daughter Minnie also contributed to the concept of Edith Wharton’s last and unfinished novel, The Buccaneers. Set in the days of Edith Wharton’s youth, The Buccaneers follows the ‘cash for class’ adventures of three American heiresses and their status-hungry Brits. And that, dear reader, is how my hometown holds its indelible mark in classical literature.