My Favorite Heiresses: the Perils of Pauline Payne Whitney
Pauline Payne Whitney was born in 1874 to William Collins Whitney, financier and political leader, and Flora Payne Whitney, daughter of Senator Henry B Payne of Ohio and sister of Col. Oliver Payne, a board member of Standard Oil. The Whitney’s were immensely rich, and immensely popular. William was handsome, sporty, and charming, though with a bit of a roving eye for the ladies according to some.
Flora, while not a conventional beauty, more than made up for it with her warmth, generosity, vivacity, and intelligence.
The couple moved in the top social circles of the day and helped set the bar for conspicuous consumption in the Gilded Age (no easy feat). In addition to a home in New York City, William Collins Whitney began collecting tens of thousands of acres and additional properties in the Berkshires, Adirondacks, the North Shore of Long Island and Aiken, South Carolina.
When Pauline was nine, her Uncle Oliver Payne purchased the Stevens residence, a sumptuous multi-gabled mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue at 2 West 57th street for his sister’s family.
The Whitney’s hardly had time to enjoy their new surroundings before moving to Washington DC in 1885, when her father began serving as Secretary of the Navy for the Cleveland Administration.
It was estimated that the oh so social Whitney’s entertained over 60,000 people at their I street home over the course of their four years there.
Anticipating their return to New York, Flora hired McKim Mead and White to redecorate 2 West 57th St. Once back, their pace of entertaining hardly slowed. The Whitney residence became one of the focal points of fashionable society, known for Flora’s impeccably staged events there. The most brilliant was a reception held on December 10, 1892 to mark Pauline’s formal debut, with three hundred guests representing the political and social elite of the day.
Pauline had inherited the best qualities of both her parents. Attractive, intelligent and sociable, she was already known in New York and Washington as well as Bar Harbor, Newport and other fashionable watering holes her family frequented. Newspapers noted she was already well traveled, an excellent linguist, talented musician, accomplished horsewoman and an enthusiastic tennis player. Promising to be one of the standout debutantes of the season, her name regularly appeared in the social columns, which took particular note of her elegant costumes and general popularity. Her stellar launch into society was cut dramatically short however, in February of 1893 when Flora Payne Whitney succumbed to heart disease at the age of 51, plunging the family into a period of mourning.
Despite keeping as low a profile as a Whitney could, Pauline often found her name in the news of the day. An 1894 newspaper article that decried the tendency of certain young ladies of wealth to hold socialist, almost anarchist leanings singled out Pauline. It noted not only did she feel wealth was unequally distributed, she also an ardent believer in Women’s Suffrage.
At the other end of the spectrum, papers also leaked news of the imminent engagement announcement between Pauline and George Vanderbilt, causing their readership to salivate over the potential union of two of America’s most prominent and wealthy families. While it ultimately did not come to pass in Pauline’s case, the public’s disappointment was to be assuaged two short years later.
Interestingly, in the all of press coverage she received in 1894, there was absolutely no mention of her falling ill with Diphtheria, a dangerous and potentially fatal disease at the time (while she recovered, her once robust health would never be the same). Her father decided that Europe would the best place for her to convalesce. Almeric Paget, an acquaintance of the family, happened to be onboard the same steamship and spent a good deal of time with the recuperating Miss Whitney. Soon enough, a much more serious romance developed.
To label Almeric Hugh Paget an interesting character would be a gross understatement. He was born into an aristocratic British family that had produced numerous courtiers, military officers and peers. Despite his illustrious lineage (grandson of the Marquess of Anglesey), as the sixth son of a sixth son and one of fourteen brothers and sisters to boot, it was fairly clear he was going to have to make his own way. At sixteen he dropped out of school and sailed for America. After working out west as a cowboy for a while, he made his way St Paul Minnesota where he went into real estate. Branching out into other areas, he eventually became a partner in several business ventures with Herman Melville Whitney, Pauline’s uncle.
While America held plenty of business opportunities for ambitious Englishmen, it also had plenty of heiresses whose new money could help shore up sagging aristocratic family coffers. Almeric’s oldest brother had led by example, marrying Minnie Stevens, only daughter of the redoubtable Mrs. Paran Stevens (who was living across the street from the Whitney’s at the time, in the former Mary Mason Jones residence). Whether by chance or design, Pauline and Almeric were soon smitten. He accompanied she and her father on a Nile river cruise in early 1895. When subsequent rumors of a new engagement surfaced in the press, a family representative confirmed them this time.
Whether by chance or design, Pauline and Almeric were soon smitten. He accompanied she and her father on a Nile river cruise in early 1895. When subsequent rumors of a new engagement surfaced in the press, a family representative confirmed them this time.
Although overshadowed in history by the Vanderbilt Marlborough nuptials, which happened to take place the week before, at the time some considered the Paget Whitney wedding the more brilliant social event of the two.
Crowds began gathering outside both the Whitney mansion and fashionable St. Thomas Church on the sidewalks early in the morning on November 12, 1895, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bride
or the celebrity guests.
They included nearly every member of the extended Vanderbilt clan (who were barred from Consuelo’s wedding by the fearsome Alva), President and Mrs. Cleveland, and the two principal members of feuding branches of Astor family, Caroline Astor as well as her nephew and social nemesis William Waldorf. Newspapers breathlessly recounted every last detail of the wedding from the clothes, to the music, food, the wedding breakfast and a minute-by-minute description of the service. Fortunately, a photographic record of the floral decorations from the church and the mansion exists in the Museum of the City of New York’s photographic archives.
Even in black and white, they are astounding. Unfortunately no photos exist of the wedding gifts that were on display in the family mansion, which included a queen's ransom in jewelry, from a diamond tiara to numerous jeweled collars, pins, rings and brooches (not to mention a magnificent three strand pearl necklace that the press estimated second only to that of the Vanderbilt’s).
After an extended honeymoon in Europe, the newlyweds returned to New York in April of 1896. They were warmly greeted at the dock by Pauline’s father who whisked them back to 2 West 57th St. Before long however, two more Whitney weddings occurred, forever changing the family dynamic.
On August 25th her older brother Harry Payne Whitney married one of Pauline’s best friends, neighbor, and bridesmaid at her own wedding, Gertrude Vanderbilt. The Paget’s hosted a dinner for members of the wedding party two nights before in Newport. The ceremony, held at the Breakers, was relatively small due to the ill health of Gertrude’s father, but splendid nonetheless. William Collins Whitney gave the newlyweds 2 West 57th St. as a wedding gift.
A month later in Bar Harbor, he himself was married in a quiet ceremony. Amongst the dozen guests, his eldest son and daughter were noticeably absent. The newspapers diplomatically explained that Harry was on his honeymoon and Pauline’s ill health prevented their attendance. While it is quite possible that Pauline’s health prevented her attendance, there was definitely more to the story.
William’s new wife was Edith May Randolph, a beautiful widow from a good family with a bit of a tainted reputation. Not only was she known as the former mistress of JP Morgan, it was fairly accepted in society that she also had a relationship with William Collins Whitney before Flora’s death. He had taken back up with Mrs. Randolph as soon as possible once the acceptable period of mourning had elapsed.
If Pauline and her siblings were none too pleased with her father’s new wife, her uncle Oliver Payne was apoplectic, vowing to destroy William for besmirching his dear departed sister’s memory. As part of his campaign, the rich bachelor promised to bequeath a good deal of his estate to whichever of the children would side with him. Pauline and her younger brother William Payne (who officially dropped the William, becoming known thereafter simply as “Payne” Whitney) accepted his offer, while Harry and Dorothy (still a child) officially stood by their father.
On December 30th, the Paget’s purchased a townhouse at 11 East 61st street. Pauline had McKim Mead and White (who also renovating a massive mansion on Fifth Avenue and 68th street her father had recently purchased) to gut and reconfigure the house, adding a new dining room for entertaining. As work progressed, they rented Point d’Acadie, the Bar Harbor cottage of George Vanderbilt (Pauline’s rumored former fiancé) for the 1897 season. The summer colony welcomed them with open arms, and they were soon key figures in the social scene there.
Moving into their new Manhattan residence, Pauline led the life of a young society matron, her attendance noted at the annual horseshow, operas, and musicales. While her home wasn’t large enough to accommodate hundreds upon hundreds of people like her parents’, she entertained frequently, hosting a coming of age dinner and dance for 150 guests in honor of her brother Payne, and a dinner for 28 to celebrate her friend Emily Vanderbilt Sloane’s engagement. The Washington Times wrote a tongue in cheek article about a new “Trust” of ten women that had recently formed to control society, led by Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Ogden Mills. Pauline was listed as one of the junior members (along with her sister in-law Gertrude).
In 1898 Pauline made the papers for a very different reason when the team of horses drawing her carriage bolted out of control up Fifth Avenue. Her footman was thrown out of the vehicle and severely injured, leaving no one to handle the reins. The horses eventually slowed down on their own and stopped without causing a major accident. She was unharmed, the press praising her levelheadedness and nerves of steel during the incident.
After spending the 1897 and 1898 seasons in Bar Harbor, papers were abuzz with news that the Paget’s would begin summering in Newport. They rented Edgerton, Ambassador Henry White’s cottage on Harrison Avenue. In 1899 Pauline gave birth to a daughter, named Olive. Almeric took up yachting and the couple bought a farm out on Long Island.
Although things appeared to be going swimmingly in New York, by 1902 the Paget’s moved to London, ostensibly due to Pauline’s fragile health. England was closer to the spas on the Continent and traveling to milder climates during the winter months would be easier. Pauline happened to be in Italy in late January of 1904 when word reached her that her father was critically ill. She could not get back to the States in time for his passing on February 2nd, or the funeral, even if her health had allowed it.
According to William’s will, Pauline and Payne each inherited one-tenth of his estate (netting her a little less than $2,500,000). Harry inherited half, and her younger sister Dorothy inherited the remaining three-tenths of his estate. In response, the press acknowledged relations between father and daughter had been strained ever since his remarriage, but that it was common knowledge that Pauline and Payne could expect to inherit a larger share of their uncle Oliver Payne’s estate when he passed. When Almeric Paget and two sisters arrived in New York the next month, Harry met him at the dock, and he assured reporters that neither he nor his wife had any intentions of challenging the will.
If she did not have the same level of wealth as her siblings, between her dowry, legacies from her mothers and grandfather’s estates, not to mention the money Almeric had amassed in business, the Paget’s lived quite comfortably. They kept a villa at Cannes, and after she received her inheritance, they purchased a large townhouse at 39 Berkley Square.
Pauline gave birth to a second daughter in 1905. It was a difficult pregnancy that depleted her physically, damaging her already fragile health. Her indomitable spirit, however, enabled her to rally in time to host a smart dinner party in honor of Mrs. John Jacob Astor, and make sure her sister Dorothy Whitney had plenty to do while she was with the Paget’s for the London season that year.
If there had indeed been a chill between Pauline and her father before his death, she always remained close with her brothers and sisters. In 1902 Payne and his wife stayed with the Paget’s in London, Dorothy came almost every year to visit, and Harry and Gertrude came for the 1907 season.
Over time, rumors surfaced that Almeric and Pauline’s marriage was not entirely happy. They did spend a good deal of time apart. While business interests and acquaintances kept Almeric coming to America often, Pauline seldom returned Stateside after 1904. The summer of 1907 found Almeric staying with the Cornelius Vanderbilt’s in Newport while Pauline motored through the south of France to Lausanne, then to Caux where she was joined by her sister Dorothy. From there they went to Paris where she stayed with her good friend the Princess Jean Ghika (a fellow American-born heiress who married into Romanian nobility) for several weeks.
Their frequent separations may have been due partly to Pauline’s health, which necessitated frequent trips to Aix les Bains and other fashionable spas for treatments. Pauline took to going to Egypt during the winters. While the papers often recorded her being accompanied by friends, her daughters or sister Dorothy, Almeric never seems to have been mentioned.
Despite Pauline’s frequent bouts of invalidism, her social schedule and indomitable joie de vivre remained impressive. Though she no longer rode horses, she took to motoring with a vengeance, becoming an early female member of the Automobile Club of England. While tennis was out of the question, she took up billiards and was known as the best bridge player in the smart set.
If there were cracks in the marriage, the Pagets put on a united front when they were together. They fully partook in London’s social whirl as a couple, and they entertained frequently at their villa in Cannes, where they were the acknowledged leaders of society on the Riviera.
When Almeric decided to run for office, Pauline fully supported him enthusiastically writing letters and canvassing from her car for him. After being elected MP for Cambridge in 1910, the couple rented Deepdene, an impressive country pile in Surrey that reflected his political ambitions.
In September of 1911 Pauline accompanied her sister Dorothy to Geneva, Switzerland where she was to marry diplomat Willard Straight. Almeric was present and Pauline’s daughters acted as bridesmaids at the wedding, which reunited all four of the Whitney siblings, perhaps for the last time.
If there was a breach in Almeric and Pauline’s marriage, ironically the Great War brought them closer than ever. In 1914 they leased Panshanger in Hertfordshire.
They hosted a massive garden party there in September of that year for the leaders of the Unionist party. Amongst the thousand attendees were former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (seen below with Lady Londonderry), who played tennis,
and nearly every Conservative politician of note. If her scale of entertainments now approached those of her late mother’s (Pauline, below amidst her guests in white feathered hat),
she also began to echo her spontaneous acts of generosity. Hearing a young cellist perform in 1914, she was so moved she bought a $10,000 cello and presented it to the young woman as a gift.
To aid the war effort, in the autumn of 1914 Pauline and Almeric founded the Almeric Paget Military Massage Corps, which placed trained masseuses in military hospitals. By November the organization, run out of their house at Berkley Square, had placed 50 young women in various military hospitals. The service proved so popular that the Pagets were asked to open a day clinic in London. Lady Alexander Paget patriotically loaned her home at 55 Portland Place for the location. Soon over 200 men a day were seen there. Soon over 300 masseuses were employed at the clinic and military hospitals throughout England. Channeling the same enthusiasm, skill and generosity she directed towards friends and society to a new, higher calling, Pauline took a strong interest in the women of the A.P.M.M.C and the services they provided to the wounded soldiers. She established a Convalescent Camp near the coast at Eastbourne called Summerdown. Pauline visited regularly, organizing the women there.
The wounded soldiers at Summerdown Camp liked and admired her so much that she was widely referred to as the ‘Angel of Summerdown’.
In the fall of 1916, papers announced that Pauline would be renting Claremont House, a neoclassical residence owned by the Royal family in Surrey (recently vacated by the Duchess of Albany). Closer to Summerdown Camp than Panshanger in Hertfordshire, it would allow her to spend more time there.
She had scarcely moved in, however, when her poor health finally caught up with her. After three weeks of illness, Pauline tragically died in November of 1916, at the young age of 41. Probably sensing the end was near, she had divided $4 million between her two daughters shortly before her death. To her husband, she left another million dollars in trust.
A group of wounded soldiers served as pallbearers at her funeral in Hertfordshire in recognition of her service to the war effort. A memorial service in London followed, filled with the social and political elite of the day (not unlike her debut and wedding). The following year her Uncle Oliver Payne died, leaving her one-sixth of his $32 million estate (which was split between to her two daughters).
Despite a full, rich but short life, sadly Pauline is one of the lesser-known of the Whitney women today. Few people passing by this beautiful churchyard monument erected in her honor, know anything of her brief fascinating life.