A Night at the Opera, or, Portraits of Some Ladies

Sometimes free association leads the Dilettante astray.

Yesterday my friend Janet posted a wonderful found photograph on her blog, JCB, of a snappily dressed woman and a friend out shopping (Click HERE to see that photo).  Although different in subject,  it reminded me of the famous Weegee photo, 'The Critic', published in 1943.  I pulled up a copy of the 'The Critic', and found myself curious to know more.   Everyone knows this photograph---two supremely silly looking Society women being photographed at the 1943 opening night of the Metropolitan Opera, while a homeless woman looks on with contempt.  I wondered, okay, who were these two women in ermine, who looked ready to be extras in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera?  Although well known to many, much of it was new to me, and here is what I found.

First was the revelation by Weegee's assistant that the picture was actually staged.   Weegee's assistant was sent out to find the woman on the right, who was seriously drunk, at Sammy's Bar in the Bowery, and then was charged with propping her up as the two ladies stopped for their close up.  The rest is photographic history.

 Ready for their closeup:  Mrs. Kavanaugh & Lady Decies in front of the cameras

Second was the identity of the two ladies. They are Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and her good friend, Lady Decies.  Mrs. George Washington who? Never heard of her.  But Lady Decies sounds familiar...

"Widow of John de la Poer Beresford, 5th Baron Decies,  Lady Decies was the former Mrs. Harry Lehr and Mrs. John Dahlgren, born Elizabeth Wharton Drexel, daughter of the famous Philadelphia banker."  Say what?  You mean, the old dear in the middle is Elizabeth Drexel Lehr?  The one whose ravishing Boldini portrait hanging in the ballroom at the Elms in Newport I so admired just a few weeks earlier?  This cannot be!
Giovanni Boldini: Portrait of Mrs. Harry Lehr, 1916

But, it is, bringing this old Mary Petty New Yorker cover of an elderly lady dining in front of her youthful portrait to full life:

Mrs/Lady Drexel/Dahlgren/Lehr/Decies was a famous Society figure of her day, and should not to confused with her sister Lucy, who married Elizabeth's first husband's brother and after her divorce was known as Mrs. Drexel Dahlgren (builder of Champs Soleil in Newport), .  After the death of Mr. Dahlgren, she married Harry Lehr, court jester to Newport Society, the Jerry Zipkin of his day.

 Mr. & Mrs. Harry Lehr
Miss Harry Lehr

On their wedding night, he gallantly informed her that he was not interested in her as a woman (or in any women), but merely in her money.  Yet they remained married and Harry continued to play women's roles in Tableaux vivants, and to exercise his rapier wit for the entertainment of Newport's grand hostesses.  After Lehr's death, she then Lord Decies, the widower of heiress Vivien Gould (who really liked cats, to the extent that she had a building for them called The Cattery on the Decies estate.  Really. Could I make this stuff up?)

Are you still with me?  I'm just warming up.

Mrs. Lady Lehr Decies evened the score with Harry Lehr in 1936 by writing a tell all biography, King Lehr and The Gilded Age.  I actually read it years ago.  Don't ask me why, I just did.  She seems to have been much happier with the titled husband.  And the tiara.  But the question remains:  Did she ever look as lovely as in the Boldini portrait, or was the painter, famous for making his subjects appear wittier, more sophisticated and more glamorous than they really were, just practicing his artistic sorcery?  She looks ravishing in the portrait but the evidence from other portraits is that Lady D. was actually a more ordinary sort:

 1894 by Muller-Ury
1936 by Phillipe de Laszlo
 Weegee's photograph was not the first of the two ladies together.  Here they are at Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt's famous Last Ball at her Fifth Avenue Mansion in 1941.  Here we actually catch a glimpse of the Elizabeth Drexel of the Boldini portrait.

Apparently she was downright scintillating in comparison to her arched eyebrowed companion on the left.  It was more difficult to piece together a biography of Mrs. Kavanaugh.  I mean, who the heck was she?  and why couldn't she find a better hairdresser in New York?

I persevered, and here's what I found:

Mrs. Kavanaugh began in Richmond, Virginia, where she was born Maria Magdalena Muller.  She married William Haberle, a brewery heir from Syracuse New York.  They lived in a drab typical upper middle class Queen Anne house on Prospect Avenue in Syracuse.  Mr. Haberle died young, leaving her with two daughters.  By 1912, she was in London with her daughter Leonora (whose marriage to a ne'er do well was a failure, and who seems actually never to have left home), and is married that year to Colonel Kavanaugh, a cotton manufacturer from Waterford New York, who became colonel while serving in Governor Levi Morton's staff.  
Nothing exceeds like excess:  Mrs. Kavanaugh, and five pounds of jewelry in her elaborate drawing room at 10 East 62nd Street.  Not for her the graceful Louis XV of the Fricks

Soon after, we find them living in a grand beaux arts town house at 10 East 62nd Street and beginning to appear in the Society columns.  Not for Mrs. Kavanaugh any published good works.  If she sneaked out to work in soup kitchens, it was a well kept secret.  Apparently, Society and jewelry were her main occupations.  If her portrait was painted, it isn't in the public domain, but she was photographed often, from the Beaux Arts Ball to El Morocco.  Whereas Lady Decies is well documented by photos and portraits from her early years, her buddy Mrs. Kavanaugh seems to have sprung into the world, fully bejeweled and befurred (if Sarah Palin can make up words, so can I) after her 1912 move to New York.

 In 1943, Mrs. Kavanaugh bought, for cash, the house next door, number 8, apparently to protect her property.  The value of the combined properties that year was $211,000.  Just as a point of reference, number 10 is currently valued at $22,500,000, and the far less grand number 8 at $2,160,000.

Numbers 8 (center) and 10 (left) East 62nd Street

In 1944, Lady Decies died, and LIFE again photographed Mrs. Kavanaugh at opening night at the Met.  As Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the star audience attraction in most seasons, couldn't attend, Mrs. Kavanaugh was the center of attention. Interviewed later about her jewelry display that evening, she explained that she would have worn more, but didn't feel it was right in wartime.  Interestingly, Mrs. Kavanaugh and Leonora sat in the front row, and not in the Golden Horseshoe, the first tier balcony where most of the fashionable set were. And their drinks (Mrs. Kavanaugh had beer, a nod to the origins of her fortune, perhaps) were had at Sherry's on the mezzanine, not in the more exclusive Opera Club.  Just sayin'.

At El Morocco after the opera.  Daughter has certainly inherited her mother's style.
And back to El Morocco in 1950.  Get Mrs. Kavanaugh's hat, an apparent riff on Bullwinkle

After the Weegee photo appeared A story circulated that her grandson, William Warner, son of Leonora, was in a foxhole in Europe when copies of the photograph were dropped by the enemy, bearing the caption "GIs, is this what you're fighting for".   Warner's friend John Pierrepont set the record straight, which was that after the photo appeared, Warner had an unusual amount of mail that week, filled with clippings the friends had sent of the photo.  

Wait a second.  William Warner?  It couldn't be.  But, yes, it is.  Mrs. Kavanaugh's grandson is the same William Warner, who wrote the wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay.  I read this book too.  Much better than King Lehr and the Gilded Age.  Much. In the introduction to his fourth book he writes of 10 E. 62nd St. that he was born "in a house without great books, without a father, and, for some periods of the year, without a mother."

And now you know as much as I do about 'The Critic', if you didn't already.  It took me an hour to suss out this information, and another hour and a half to write it down, a half hour to choose the pictures, and it took you less than ten minutes to read it.  Lucky you. I'll never get those three hours back

Speaking of A Night at the Opera, here is Margaret Dumont with the Marx brothers on a disastrous opening night in the 1935 movie.   Looks familiar, doesn't it?   The silly socialite, living only for jewels and being seen at the right places was a standard cliche of old comedies, and one glance at Decies and Kavanaugh makes it easy to understand why.


Janet said...

All this inspired by a $1 bin photograph! Delicious. DED, you made my morning.

John J Tackett said...

Fascinating! A number of years ago, I was the historic preservation consultant for the Lucy Drexel Dahlgren townhouse designed by Ogden Codman. (I am working on a posting for my new blog to debut next week). So I knew a little about the failed marriages of the rich and socially connected Drexel girls, and their ability to retain social standing after divorce. But you have provided so much more in a brilliant detective story!

Scott Waterman said...

I'm glad to have this mystery solved. A flickrite who goes by Magnolia Thunderpussy uses the WeeGee image.


ArchitectDesign™ said...

Well if the antique trade doesn't continue to pan out, you could always join the FBI! Love how you weaved this tale all from a photograph. This is why we keep coming back for more! :-)

DM said...

That was FASCINTILLATING!! I've actually never seen the first image, but hearing it unfold was so interesting. Well done, D.E.D!

Toby Worthington said...

Loved it~yet another delightful installment of your
Connective Thread/Degrees of Separation series.
And I'm still smiling at Architect Design's FBI reference.
He's got something there....

Anonymous said...

"...it took you less than ten minutes to read it. Lucky you. I'll never get those three hours back."

DED, sir:

Yes, we are lucky, we are very lucky. For those three hours, and for the countless hours you've given us from your life and keyboard, we thank you.

I'm still digesting HMS and PP and now comes this on the heels of, but wait, just to set the record straight, the depth of your work does not take less than 10 minutes to read, it takes days and days to savor, think/chuckle/digest, return to, re-read, walk away, come back, ponder, bookmark, return, and then you'll make a casual reference which ordinary sophisticates should know, but which will send me off to verify.

Pardon me, sir, but I'm begining to doubt your credentials, you ain't no dilettante.

Blue said...

Dilettante, THIS is why I read you readily and with such pleasure. Brilliant.

And you're one year old, I understand from your comment to Reggie? Did I miss the celebration?

The Ancient said...


What Blue said.

home before dark said...

How do we know you aren't already a member of the FBI...or Hercule Poirot? Amazing sleuthing and bobbing and weaving. And happy anniversary...hope your car does not blow up in celebration. If so would that mark the occasion as reincarnation? (As if you can't tell, loved the car blow up and your story about it the very, very best.)

Anonymous said...

"(As if you can't tell, loved the car blow up and your story about it the very, very best.)"

A gifted post indeed, that one. Might I throw in the equally peerless "How to Ship a Chair"?

Raina Cox said...

*falls to the floor in ecstasy*

You really are the best. Just the best.

Michele from Boston said...

"Channeling Bullwinkle"...this was an absolutely marvelous detective story, DED. Were all socialites at that time at least thrice-married (w/a least one titled heir in the bunch)? Amazing you could keep track! LOVE your sense of humor. Thank you. M.

Turner Pack Rats said...

a few points
1. my guess (referring to the following post) is that there are a few more than 7 things we might not know about you - this post is evidence. "three hours you'll never see again" and you loved every minute of them knowing that the eclectic crowd who reads your wanderings luckily thinks much like you ( a disturbing thought)
2. when you said "in england in 1912", my first thought was: oh, god, the titanic!
3.if this post does not sate a trivia lover such as you (and me), nothing ever will. if you can remember where you started, i think you must be slipping.
4.too much jewelry - what exactly does that mean. as i've often said about long island houses, if you've got it, flaunt it. what's the point of having all that money if no one gets to see the proof.
and 5. a masterpiece - my favorite part - channeling bullwinkle - a piece that falls into the realm of the RealEstalker. hard to believe you picked all this up in a dreary little backwater like the hahbuh.

security word def - "misha" -1. part of a drunken reply to the question: i heard you're wife left you. "yesh, and i'm really going to misha" 2. first name of a famous fiddle player

RACOMER2 said...

I can't count the times I have viewed the Weegee photograph, usually with a mix of horror and awe. The back story was spectacular!! I shared the post and it was much appreciated!! So...Thank You and Happy Holidays to you and yours in the wonderful State Of Maine.

Anonymous said...

You have made my night. I always thought the Society ladies from the Weegee photo were fabulous. They looked like the stereotypical Society matrons from those screwball comedies from the 1930's. Mrs. Kavanaugh is my favorite socialite now; the woman is gay heaven, I mean look at her, just fabulous. To make things even better she has her sidekick daughter. Wow I need to go write a musical.

The Down East Dilettante said...

Eameless, Thanks so much, as always!

Kevin, that's a musical I'm looking forward to. Move over Grey Gardens!