MISS SPENCE DISAPPROVES. Dilettante Writes Again

Before movie stars became the tabloid currency of choice, Society figures were America's chief tabloid obsession.  One of 1911's major tabloid fixations was the marriage of 47 year-old John Jacob Astor IV, recently divorced and one of the richest men in America, to 18 year-old Madeline Force, a Bar Harbor summer resident.  Thousands of columns of newspaper ink were expended on the their courtship.  The marriage was denounced from the pulpits, and from Bar Harbor, the redoubtable Clara B. Spence founder of Miss Spence's School for Girls, (who herself had an opinion or two about the proper raising of a Society girl),  weighed in with a letter to the Editor of The New York Times:

Miss Spence had formerly summered across the bay at Sorrento, but now spent her summers at Bar Harbor with her longtime companion, Miss Charlotte Baker, the assistant principal at Spence, an heiress to the fortune left by her aunt's husband, John Steward Kennedy. Two years later, Spence and Baker, with their four adopted children, would move from a cottage on the Kennedy estate to 'The Willows' a beautiful Regency style cottage designed for Miss Baker by the Boston firm of Andrews Jaques & Rantoul on Eden Street. "The Willows" would eventually pass to Miss Baker's sister, Mrs. Francis Kellogg, and later be sold to Canadian mining tycoon Sir Harry Oakes, but that's another story, which can be found HERE

The Misses Spence & Baker, with adopted daughters Margaret Spence & Ruth Baker (Spence School)
Despite Miss Spence's disapproval, the Astor marriage went ahead, only to be cut short when Col. Astor perished aboard the Titanic in April of 1912.  In August of 1912, three of the survivors, Madeline Astor, Mrs. George Widener, and Mrs. John B.Thayer, were in Bar Harbor as the guests of Mrs. A.J. Cassatt at "Four Acres", the Cassatt estate, which abuttied the property where Miss Baker and Miss Spence's new cottage was rising.  

'The Willows', the Bar Harbor cottage of Miss Baker
The next summer, even as the Misses Baker and Spence were moving into "The Willows", Mrs. Astor was also moving, into a nearby cottage also designed by Andrews, Jaques & Rantoul, a few carefully raked gravel driveways up Eden Street from the famed educators.

La Selva, ocean front in better days
That house was 'La Selva', built in 1903 for Pennsylvania coal baron Andrew Davis.  During Mrs. Astor's occupancy members of the press were frequently seen lurking at the gates in search of news about Mrs. Astor and her new baby, John Jacob Astor VI. 

In 1916, Harper's Bazaar caught Mrs. Astor at Bar Harbor as she was about to be remarried.
A few years later, Mrs. Astor would depart "La Selva" for a more secluded cottage on the George Vanderbilt estate, but "La Selva" would soon attract another colorful tenant, Mrs. Leonard Thomas, formerly Blanche Oelrichs of Newport, known professionally as the playwright, poet, and actress Michael Strange. Sometimes referred to as 'the most beautiful woman in America', Mrs. Thomas was already planning to leave her banker husband to obtain a Paris divorce, that she might run away with her lover, John Barrymore, one of the most famous actors of his day.

La Selva's next tenant was the beautiful Michael Strange (nee Blanche Oelrichs), seen here with her lover and later husband, John Barrymore.
'La Selva' is currently for sale, its condition more than a little reminiscent of 'Grey Gardens'.  I have written its colorful history for 'House of the Month' in the current issue of Portland Monthly.  The article may be read HERE.  More pictures HERE.

La Selva, views of entrance front taken two weeks ago


Raina Cox said...

I had no idea about Miss Spence. My, my.

Also, this post is so chock full of society gossip goodness, it's downright chewy.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

oh my -yes -i think thats what you call a fixer upper!

Anonymous said...

Sir Harry Oakes -- that's a name I haven't seen in a while. In the 1970s, Alfred and Mary de Marigny moved to Houston and bought the house next door to us. A few months passed without any sign of the de Marignys preparing to move in. Then one night, their house burned spectacularly, as a result of some very competent (and unsolved) arson.

Small world.

Reggie Darling said...

Ah yes, a "Boston Marriage." I recall that the Head Mistress (that's what they called them way back when) of the National Cathedral School for Girls (NCS) in Washington DC in the 1960s, a certain Miss Lee, lived in a similar situation. Miss Lee and her "dear friend" were neighbours of ours in the Cleveland Park neighbourhood, and Miss Lee was a flower girl at my grandmother's wedding! Also, both my sisters went to NCS. She was very proper, I recall. Who knew? Reggie

Elaine said...

Love the Portland Montlhy article. The history of these houses is always so fascinating.

chinitosky said...

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Kate said...

My friend Torie turned me on to your blog - am LOVING it. Are you familiar with the Solon Meeting House? Beautiful old building with an interesting history in itsfrescos.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Raina--watch out for the gristle




Elaine--thank-you. Some houses definitely have tales to tell

chinitosky---we must be focused on not spamming out blog. What can we do to keep you from spamming our blog so that we cannot be spammed?

Kate, thank-you and welcome. Indeed I am familiar with the Solon Meeting House and love it so much I've blogged about it twice: http://thedowneastdilettante.blogspot.com/2010/11/frescoes-of-south-solon-maine.html


Kay Wisniewski said...

Thank you so much for the heads-up on Miss Spence from an old Spencie. "Not for school but for our life we learn." Not a bad motto.

Kay Newburger Wisniewski, class of 73

Nick Heywood said...

I find Clara Spence's frustration truly admirable -- it must have been incredibly frustrating to see even the most intelligent of her pupils lost to a world that failed to take advantage of the carefully cultivated education Spence worked hard to provide. I must admit nearly all of the modern Spence girls I knew in college were silly in the extreme, and I assumed it an insubstantial sort of place (albeit with a well-known name). This must not always have been the case.

columnist said...

Despite its provenance and antiquity there is an air of "McMansion" about the architecture of the house - in its present day photos. Anyway, the buyer will have to be someone with similar means to an Astor, to restore it or rebuild it.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating reminder that the fate of houses is forever entwined with that of their owners. The much-better-looked-after Mediterranean villa next door to La Selva was occupied into the 1970s by an elderly dipsomaniac with a very controlling butler, her eventual heir. My mother had known the owner when a girl and after returning to Maine, divorced with young children, she got back in touch (using the Social Register Locator). Presently we were invited to the house. On the appointed day, however, the butler apparently made sure the liquor cabinet was unlocked. Around the time we were to depart a call came telling us the mistress was indisposed. Could we really have been such a threat? Since seeing the look of baffled sadness on mother's face I've often wondered what happened to these people, and if anybody knows the denoument it's probably DED. Like Truman Capote, who was said to have known both Bobby Kennedy and Sirhan Sirhan socially, I wouldn't be surprised if DED is but a degree of separation from either character.

Anonymous said...

Very well put together article in Portland Monthly, by the way. All those Astor connections (and non-connections), presented so wittily and clearly. The Dilettante style was much in evidence.

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Kellsboro Jack said...

Fascinating tale all around. The house isn't as grand as I expected although the well worn condition is as advertised. A photo of it from 1904:


The winters with salt spray savaging hitting the facade has done relatively modest damage. I cannot expect that modern homes could repel mother nature much better.

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