Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Not the Nineteenth Century: Meet Mrs. Fish

One of the most interesting people I’ve “met” over the course of doing research for my non-nineteenth century book is Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, known as “Mamie” to her friends. Mamie Fish, along with her frenemies Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Tessie Oelrichs, was one of THE leaders of Gilded Age society in New York and Newport—in fact, they were known as the Great Triumvirate.

She was born in 1855 to a prosperous, but not particularly wealthy or socially prominent family. But little Marion (as she was christened), despite her lack of connections, married well—her childhood neighbor and sweetheart, Stuyvesant Fish, scion of an important and wealthy family. Mr. Fish was no rich idler; despite his inheritance, he worked his way up through the ranks to become president of the Illinois Central Railroad. He and Mamie were, unusually for their time and class, a devoted couple; at least once a week Mamie made sure they dined alone at home together, usually on Mr. Fish’s favorite corned beef and cabbage. She was also an involved and loving mother to their three children, all of whom turned out shockingly normal.

If Mamie were to summarized in one word, that word would probably be "feisty". Though not a beauty nor very well-educated (it was said that she could barely read and sign her name), she made up for these defects with a quick intelligence and an even quicker wit. Born today, I could see her in politics or in entertainment; but the only career open to a woman of her class at the turn of the twentieth century was social lioness, and Mamie went for it with a vengeance. She was utterly fearless, and alas, tactless…and yet it became almost something of a badge of honor to have been insulted (and in one case, run over repeatedly) by Mrs. Fish.

She came to “power” as the former queen of society, Mrs. Astor (of The Four Hundred fame) was winding down her social career. But society had changed since Mrs. Astor’s heyday, and Mamie fitted the new freer, faster pace of society to a T. She flouted convention and never paid social calls, left parties she found boring (usually loudly announcing the fact), and went to bed if she found her own parties had grown dull. In fact, she often seemed to dislike entertaining, and once announced to her guests, “Make yourselves perfectly at home, and believe me, there is no one who wishes you were there more than I do!” To a collection of ladies arrived for a luncheon in their newest Parisian couture, she said, “Here you all are, older faces and younger clothes.”

With her friend (some called him her “court jester”) Harry Lehr, Mamie did her best to shake things up. Parties became even more elaborate and costly and outrageously themed. When an enemy of Mamie’s failed to invite her to a party given in honor of the Tsar’s brother, Mamie threw her own for the Tsar himself and stole away all her rival’s guests, eager to meet the Tsar…who turned out to be Harry in disguise. It was a huge hit, and the following day the Tsar’s brother told Mamie he wished he’d been there, too. On another occasion they threw a party for the mysterious Prince del Drago of Corsica…and the guests who arrived eager to rub shoulders with royalty found that the distinguished Prince was a monkey in evening dress. Yet when she invited Marie Dressler to entertain her guests at a party, the actress sat down to dinner first with Mamie as an equal—unheard of in that day and age. She enjoyed lambasting the snobbishness of society; her mansion in Newport boasted no marble panels or stained glass windows bought from French chateax or Italian palazzi, but was built in Colonial Revival style and furnished with American art and antiques.

I can’t help thinking there’s something a little sad about Mamie—poorly educated, her obvious brains and wit wasted in parties and dinners--yet what other outlet did she have? I think this accounts for some of her outrageousness and her poking-holes-from-the-inside attitude. I also think that sometimes, she just couldn’t stop herself, as when her friend Alva Belmont came to her and angrily said, “I hear that you have been telling everyone that I look like a frog!” (which she rather did, if you look at her portraits…) Mamie demurred: “No, no…not a frog! A toad, my pet, a toad!”


Karen Molenaar Terrell said...

What an interesting woman! I think she'd fit right in with our Humoristian hooligans! :)

Marissa Doyle said...

I think she would, Karen. There are a few anecdotes that I didn't relate here because of their slightly racier nature, but this woman was truly a wit.

QNPoohBear said...

I love her! Why have I never heard about her? I must make sure to tell my local history class about her when we get to the Gilded Age. She sounds like my kind of friend, despite her lack of education. There doesn't even seem to be anything on her in the Historical Society. Ooh but I DID find a book called Wicked Newport: Sordid Stories From the City By the Sea. I must go check that out tomorrow!

Marissa Doyle said...

It could be because her house wasn't preserved--it's still there, but was turned into condos. I'm sure if you dig around a little more, you'll find lots more on her--she was definitely one of the post Mrs. Astor leaders of society.

For anyone interested in the social life and times of this era, I recommend A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York by Greg King--an excellent overview of the period from the 1870s to the start of WWI.

Rose de Guzman said...

I don't know that it's such a waste Marissa. But then, I'm of a generation (Gen Y) that was fed the whole "career = self worth" line only to graduate into a bad economy. Plenty of people waste their days in offices, chasing after a career they were told they should want.

Some even do it even though they miss their children -- and that seems even sadder than the "old ways," at least to me.

If Mrs. Fish was a devoted mother as you say, it seems to me that she wouldn't want to leave her children if she didn't have financial need to do so.

I think we have too narrow a definition of success these days. Career is the only way, it seems -- but to me, I am a success if I bring a smile to someone's face.

I'll consider myself a great success if I raise children who turn out "shockingly normal" -- even if people aren't blogging about my wonderous zany schemes 100 years in the future.

Marissa Doyle said...

What I think Mrs. Fish was reacting to was the emptiness of her life--the people of her class spending truly astronomical amounts of money in order to out-do each other on the lavishness of parties that lasted a few hours. I think she saw it was a ridiculous waste of money and energy that could have gone to a better purpose, but she was trapped in it, perhaps from lack of knowing how to escape it or just from sheer inertia. I'll do another post on just how conspicuous the consumption was in this time and place.

And yes, Rose, she was a devoted mother...but in that day and social class, being a devoted mother might just mean that you kept close tabs on their nannies and governesses and interacted with them more than 20 minutes a day. She was by no means a "mom" in the sense we consider it today.

QNPoohBear said...

I found a postcard of her drawing room

Marissa or anyone who might need a quick lookup at the RI Historical Society let me know! I didn't get a chance to look up Mrs. Fish yet but I will try next time I'm there.

Marissa Doyle said...

That's great, QNPoohBear! And yes, a much less crazy interior than, say, The Breakers!