|Emilie Grigsby's mansion stretched northward along Park Avenue from 67th Street -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
After sending the children off to schools, Susan kept up appearances in the horse sporting circles of Lexington, Kentucky—she was so popular that reportedly three racehorses were named after her, including the winner of the 1884 Kentucky Derby. But money issues plagued her.
So Susan Grigsby made a life-changing decision. In order to keep her children in Catholic-operated schools—son Braxton in Dayton, Ohio at St. Mary’s Seminary and Emelie in an Ursuline convent in Brown County, Ohio—she opened a high-end brothel in Cincinnati.
Young Emelie received an education in culture and creativity. The nuns taught the girls American and European history and pressed them to discover their own intellect—writing plays and poems, for instance. She left the convent a refined and cultured young woman who could comfortably interact in the drawing rooms of polite society.
She also left with a troubling awareness. The nuns had revealed her mother’s profession to her, saying it was now her cross to bear. Emilie realized that the only way to escape the fate her mother endured was to acquire money and social status.
Her brother, Braxton, became private secretary to the Chicago financier Charles T. Yerkes. Yerkes controlled most of the city’s street railway system and in 1892 donated nearly $300,000 to the University of Chicago to build the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. It included the world’s largest telescope. That same year he met the sixteen-year old Emilie Grigsby.
|The married millionaire Charles Yerkes fell for 16-year old Emilie Grigsby -- Catalogue of paintings and sculpture in the collection of Charles T. Yerkes, New York, 1904 (copyright expired)|
The married Yerkes was smitten with the teenaged Kentucky belle. Ellen Dunlap Hopkins, a New York socialite, would later say of her “I think she was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. Her eyes were brown. Her hair had the reddish gleam of gold. Her face sad in expression: her complexion like alabaster. Her form was beautiful. She was not more than five feet five inches in height, but she wore usually long clinging soft white robes that seemed to give her great height.” She was said to have the “manner of an empress.”
Also smitten with the beauty was Yerkes’s son, Charles Edward, and within months an impending engagement was rumored. Emilie apparently liked young Charles—perhaps even loved him—but the golden goose was not the son, but the father. When it became evident that Charles's intended wife was seeing his father the romance was off and for months the father and son did not speak.
On December 28, 1896 a Chicago newspaper reported that “Charles T. Yerkes’s ambitious plan to shake the dust of Chicago off his shoes and go to New York to live seems about to be realized. Step by step the cable king is arranging his affairs so he can install himself in the palace on Fifth Avenue which awaits the coming of the master.”
The palace was No. 864 Fifth Avenue which sat across from Central Park between 67th and 68th Streets, surrounded by the mansions of New York’s wealthiest and most powerful titans. Two blocks away on Park Avenue Yerkes began building another palace—this one for Emilie Grisby.
Completed in 1898, it replaced a row of brownstone homes of a generation earlier. Twenty feet deep—the width of a single house on 67th Street—it stretched northward 100 feet along Park Avenue, halfway to 68th Street. The white granite mansion rose five stories, capped by a tiled roof of peaked dormers, finials and exuberant cresting behind a tall stone balustrade.
The interior reflected Emilie’s refined tastes. Lillian Barrett described it a few years later “Her home was indeed beautiful, not the gorgeous, dazzling type that vaunts its wealth, nor the soulless kind that argues the decorator, but beautiful with a beauty that bespoke an innate delicacy in its owner, a good taste that was the outcome not of a few years’ education and travel, but of the culture of centuries.”
Yerkes lavished his “ward” with the funds to furnish her home and she spent freely. The New York Times would say “There are a great many handsome things in the house, some beautiful old ones, including rugs and tapestries, everything is expensive, and the general effect shows a florid taste which has been catered to with a lavish hand.”
Albert Herter painted the canvas panels that were then applied to the ceilings and walls. One guest bedroom was lined with fifteen needlework tapestries, each costing $15,000. Her music room engulfed the entire fourth floor and included a carved Vernis Martin piano, covered entirely in gold leaf. In this room was a chair covered in ivory carvings. “This chair, which is of the highbacked side variety, is placed upon a small dais at the one end of the room as a further warning to the rash visitor that it is for ornament rather than use,” said The Times.
An avid collector, Emilie filled the mansion with art—a collection of jade, miniatures including one of Henry VIII, Flemish tapestries and paintings. There was a Louis XVI “rose room,” a Napoleonic bedroom, and Emilie’s own room paneled in Italian walnut decorated with blue and white Chinese porcelains.
|Emilie's Catholic education may be reflected in the religious painting in the Napoleon Room -- from the Grigsby Auction Catalog, copyright expired|
The library housed expensively bound volumes. “The bookcases and closets were all built into the walls, and the doors set in panels matching exactly the paneling of the rooms. The collection of books, shelved behind these carved doors, is said to be valuable,” said The Times.
Emilie’s appreciation of art and antiques did not get in her way of decorating, at least in one instance. The dining room was decorated with old Flemish tapestries that hung above the wainscoting. To tie in the high-backed chairs she upholstered them with similar tapestries. When someone lamented the destruction of centuries-old tapestries Emilie replied “But I couldn’t have had my chairs if I had not cut the tapestries.”
|Albert Herter executed the painted panels and ceiling in the Music room -- from the Grigsby Auction Catalog, copyright expired|
Emilie now had the financial means to rescue her mother from her scandalous profession and invited her to live in New York. That being accomplished, she turned her attention to the one thing she wanted most of all: social acceptance.
As the summer season drew to a close in 1900 the social gossip sheet Town Topics announced “Mrs. S. B. Grigsby and Miss E. B. Grigsby…are to make a bid for society here this Winter. The daughter is, apparently, the holder of the family funds, which are large.” Society, as yet, had not ferreted out the source of the “family funds.”
That season Emilie purchased a box in the Metropolitan Opera House among the city’s elite. While pearl-draped socialites studied the Southern newcomer carefully, she won the approval of some, like Ellen Dunlap Hopkins who said “The girl to me was a poem.”
In Europe her grandiose style of traveling drew attention. Taking along her retinue of servants—all black—she hired private railroad cars and sometimes entire trains to transport her, her baggage and ponderous staff. She earned the nickname abroad “the American princess.”
The wagging tongues and suspicious minds of Manhattan’s wealthy wanted desperately to know the pedigree of this mysterious refined woman who owned a Park Avenue mansion and had apparently unlimited funds. It would not be long before the story of Emilie’s mother was discovered as well as the source of the fortune. The doors of Fifth Avenue quickly began closing.
Society delicately referred to Emilie as Charles Yerkes’s “ward,” as Mary Yerkes lived on in their Fifth Avenue mansion privately suffering the indignation. Emilie was now extremely wealthy, accomplished, and shunned. The press began calling her 660 Park Avenue home “the mystery house.”
In the summer of 1905 Emilie was in London with Yerkes, who was now 68, when he became seriously ill. She nursed him for five weeks. Back in New York a few months later he was near death. The millionaire was staying at the Waldorf-Astoria rather than the Fifth Avenue mansion and as the end neared he pleaded to see Emilie, rather than his wife.
The Times reported that although “There were trained nurses in attendance on the dying man, his requests for her were so strong that Dr. Loomis considered it essential that she should be permitted to assist in nursing him, and be near him when he wishes for her presence.”
“The meeting gave great distress to the young woman and calm to the dying man. She did not remain in the hotel, but she was with Mr. Yerkes constantly, and only her presence seemed to keep him at peace. His attendants in the last few days say that Miss Grigsby’s grief was profound and distressing. She continually visited the sick chamber, however, and her visits there were welcomed and advised by the physician for purely professional reasons.”
The doctor advised “against the visit of Mrs. Yerkes,” and when he died she was sitting in an adjoining room with her sister. She considered going to his bed just before his passing, but told her sister “It is too late now.” Afterwards, as she left the hospital she said “I think I did right. He treated me shamefully.”
There was no mention of Emilie Grigsby in the Yerkes will which spread upwards of $25 million among relatives and charities. Emilie had been, however, well taken care of. Although she continued on in her lavish lifestyle, her bitterness towards Manhattan society festered. She spent more time abroad; away from the elite social circle that was closed to her.
In June of 1909 there was trouble at sea as Emilie sailed to Europe. The Times noted on June 28, “That great American problem—the race question—intruded itself into the otherwise peaceful ocean life on board the Lapland.”
Also aboard the Red Star liner were Mrs. Stephen B. Elkins, the wife of the West Virginia senator, and her daughter. Like Emilie, Mrs. Elkins was traveling with servants but unlike Emilie, hers were all white.
A cable from Belgium to The New York Times reported that “Miss Grigsby had with her a negro maid and a negro valet, old family servants, she explained, and these received seats at the servant’ table. The chauffeur of the Elkins family, who, it was understood, came from the South, objected strenuously to their presence at the table where he sat. Miss Grigsby refused to order her servants to wait for their meals, and then the chauffeur appealed to Mrs. Elkins for relief in the situation.”
The uncomfortable situation was resolved by the Captain who decided in favor of the Elkins contingent, arranging that Emilie’s servants would be served later.
Beginning in the spring of 1911 the New York press began receiving special cables telling of Emilie Grigsby’s social success among the Mayfair crowd of London. The glittering events and social coups were relayed to the possibly-envious group that had spurned her.
On July 9 The New York Times reported on the reception she held two days previously that included earls and countesses, lords and ladies. Then “Lord and Lady St. Davids on Thursday gave a garden party at their town house in Whitehall specially in honor of Miss Grigsby,” the article said. And it noted that “Next week Miss Grigsby goes to Paris with Mlle. Dussaud, returning to England early in August to pay a round of country house visits, including one to the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim.”
It would seem that Emilie Grigsby had reached the pinnacle of social success in London; but there was more to come. Another telegram informed The Times that Emilie was becoming buddies with the Royal Family itself. The newspaper ran the headline “Ignored Here; Wins Royalty” and said “Now she can boast that Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are her domain by right of conquest, and she snaps her fingers at the ‘plutocrats,’ who hit her and turned their back upon her.”
New Yorkers read with amazement that when Emilie called on her friend, the French secretary and reader for the Queen, at Buckingham Palace, she met Princess Mary. The princess, they read, “took an immediate liking to her charming American visitor, the latter treating her as a girl, and not as a Princess.
“The Queen herself fell under the American’s fascination and the latter’s visits to her friend became frequent. In a little while Princess Mary, aged 14, had given the American her whole heart, as a girl will. They called each other 'Mary' and ‘Emilie’ and there was nothing Mary was not ready to do for Emilie.”
As the Coronation drew near, Emilie Grigsby must have inwardly glowed as the women of New York read that she and her mother had been invited as the King and Queen’s special guests in a box near Princess Mary and her three youngest brothers. “The gala performances at the Opera and His Majesty’s Theatre are also honored by Miss Grigsby’s presence, and, at the latter, she sat next to the Duchess of Marlborough,” reported The Times.
Readers learned that while the King and Queen were at Winsor Castle preparing for the celebrations, “Miss Grigsby was invited there to spend some time with Princess Mary, and as recently as last Thursday evening she received an invitation to a small family dinner at Buckingham Palace, while to-morrow again she goes to Windsor, where the Royal family have now gone, for the week-end.”
Emilie got a dig in at her Manhattan nemeses. “The heroic woman herself declares that she has no use for New York, will sell her belongings there, by which she expects to realize a million dollars, and will next Winter go to the Delhi Durbar, and, on her return, settle down in London for good.”
Before Emilie could return to New York to dispose of her Park Avenue mansion, antique furnishings and art treasures, however, she was found out. The cables that leaked her social triumphs and personal relationship with the royal family had come from her. Her inventive stories to retaliate against those who had hurt and spurned her went too far—far enough to raise the attention of Buckingham Palace.
The palace issued a statement that if Miss Grigsby had indeed been at Westminster Abbey for the coronation, “her presence was officially unknown.” The press had a field day. “Miss Grigsby’s ‘social successes’ proves on investigation to be an equally baseless fabric of the imagination,” snapped The Times on July 11, 1911. It deflated the story of Emilie’s reception a week earlier. “As for the rest of the company at this party, it was of that heterogeneous description which anybody with money to open a house in London can gather from the highways and byways.”
Emily was back in New York later that year to liquidate her holdings. Everything in the house “where she lived so many years in a lonesomeness that gave the place its name of the ‘House of Mystery,’” said The Times, was to be auctioned, except for her large portrait and another of Pope Leo XIII. The newspapers listed the silver, the furniture, Oriental lamps and carpets, and “Miss Grigsby’s much-discussed golden piano with its golden candelabra, chairs, and lamps to match.”
|Emilie's extraordinary gold-leafed grand piano was among the many valuable items auctioned -- from the Grigsby Auction Catalog, copyright expired|
Her business in New York completed, Emilie Busby sailed away never to return. Her name, however, would continue to make New York headlines. Shortly after her departure she “figured in a divorce case brought by the wife of Dr. Henry P. Loomis, who had been physician to Mr. Yerkes in his last illness,” reported The Evening World. And on August 14, 1918 the newspaper reported on the court martial of Lieutenant Colonel E. M. Mackay in London. “Emilie Grigsby was one of his women friends benefitting by the Colonel’s good nature, in that she got two soldiers as gardeners for her place near London.”
While Emilie Grigsby dallied with doctors and military officers, her sumptuous Park Avenue mansion was divided into luxurious apartments. In February 1915 Mrs. Philip O. Barlett gave a dinner dance in her apartment and in May 1920 Mrs. Wilbur Knox Mathews and her daughter Currie Duke Mathews took an apartment here. Later that year, in October, Currie’s engagement to Francis Higginson Cabot, Jr. was announced.
|In 1918 Emilie Grigsby retained her empress-like presence -- The Evening World, August 14,1918 (copyright expired)|
The Grigsby mansion would not last much longer, however. In 1926 Frederick Ecker, a vice president of Metropolitan Life Insurance, commissioned architects York & Sawyer to design a luxury cooperative apartment building on the site. Ecker intended to live here himself, and the first three floors were designed as the 27-room apartment of Virginia Vanderbilt. Coincidentally, Mrs. Vanderbilt was leaving her mansion at No. 666 Fifth Avenue and in a later renumbering, the new building would become No. 666 Park Avenue.
|The apartment building that replaced the mansion still stands -- photo from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Although Emilie Grigsby’s magnificent mansion was soon gone, she was not. She entertained in her Mayfair house, entertaining the likes of William Butler Yeats, Auguste Rodin and military officials. She offered her country house Old Meadows to Field Marshall Sir John French and Field Marshall Lord Kitchener for a quiet dinner meeting during World War I.
Poet Rupert Brooke spent his last night in England at Old Meadows and Emily later had the lines he wrote in the visitors’ book engraved in bronze over the doorway. She lived on, unmarried, retaining the ephemeral beauty and poise that had captivated a railroad tycoon.
Upon her death in 1964 a London Times correspondent said her “pale beauty and golden hair” had faded slowly. Novelist George Meredith said that upon meeting her “he had at least met the heroine of ‘The Ordeal of Richard Feverel.’”
On reporting her death, The Times of London said “The passing of an Edwardian hostess in Miss Emilie Grigsby may be unnoticed but deserves memory in any record of Mayfair in its most brilliant phase.”
The article said “Society was nervous of accepting her but she could out-entertain her rivals with wines and cooking beyond their ken.”
As in London, Emilie Grigsby’s death went mostly unnoticed in New York. No one today remembers the magnificent granite-faced mansion on Park Avenue that housed her artworks and golden grand piano. And one of New York City’s most remarkable social stories is largely forgotten.