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Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Consummate Gentleman: Winthrop Rutherfurd and Some of His Leading Ladies

The press was enamored of many dashing gentlemen during the Gilded Age, but no one quite so much as Winthrop Rutherfurd.  "Winty" was tall, handsome, and of good stock.  His father, Lewis Morris Rutherfurd, was a pioneering astronomer, but Winthrop also descended directly from Peter Stuyvesant who was the head of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, and from John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts.  Edith Wharton once referred to him as the "prototype of my first novels." Perhaps she thought of him as she wrote male characters who she wanted to portray the discreet proper gentleman or ideal suitor.  Rutherfurd visited Staatsburgh multiple times and his family became connected to the Mills family when his niece married Ogden Livingston Mills in 1911.

Winthrop Rutherfurd, circa 1895

His three best-known loves span different eras of his life, but there were also probably countless others that never became public record.  How many women succumbed to the charms of Winthrop Rutherfurd?  We may never know....

Rutherfurd's legacy as a leading man was cemented once it was revealed that he was secretly engaged to Consuelo Vanderbilt; an engagement that was broken after her mother essentially forced her to marry the Duke of Marlborough.  The dashing Winthrop caught the eye of 17 year old Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of William K. and Alva, and they shared a short courtship, which was not approved by Alva.  Alva had high hopes for her daughter and though Winthrop came from a good family, he was older (he was 30 at the time) and he just didn’t meet her high standards. She wanted her daughter to marry a Duke. One society wit noted, “Winty was outclassed. Six feet two in his golf stockings, he was no match for five feet six in a coronet.” Even after Alva forbid the relationship, Winthrop and Consuelo still managed to meet and agree to a secret engagement the day before Consuelo was set to leave for an extended trip to Europe.  Yet they did not fool Alva and she kept Winthrop from Consuelo throughout the entire five month trip, even though he followed them to Europe. She made sure that her daughter did not send or receive any letters from Winthrop and he was denied admittance whenever he called.

Consuelo Vanderbilt (1877-1964)

When she was older, the former Duchess of Marlborough wrote an autobiography and remembered her feelings towards her first love and her mother’s machinations to keep them apart. “Despairing of ever seeing him, I had succumbed to despondency, when at a ball we met. We had one short dance before my mother dragged me away, but it was enough to reassure me that his feelings towards me had not changed.” When Consuelo tried to assert her right to make her own choice, her mother talked about his many flirtations, his well-known love for married women, possible madness in his family line, and Alva professed that she wouldn’t hesitate to shoot him so he wouldn’t ruin Consuelo’s life.  To ensure compliance, Alva was ill in bed warning of a potential heart attack if Consuelo persisted in her choice. Consuelo relented and married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, and despite several years of marriage that produced male heirs, it was never a happy marriage and they ultimately divorced.

Many years later in 1926, when Consuelo was seeking an annulment of this marriage, in order to marry her second husband, her relationship with Winthrop was again in the public eye. Part of Consuelo’s case for annulment rested on the fact that she was forced to marry the Duke even though she was engaged to another man. When asked about the relationship the only statement that Rutherford released was, “Some 30 years ago, I knew Miss Vanderbilt. I was one of her greatest admirers.”  Ever the gentleman...

The Boston Globe, November 25, 1926

In 1902, at age 40, Winthrop surprised many and finally did marry.  He married Alice Morton, a 22 year old blonde beauty in a simple ceremony.  She was the daughter of Levi Morton, vice-president during the administration of Benjamin Harrison.  Morton was also a former governor of New York and he lived in Rhinebeck. He did not sign the guestbook, but it is likely that he visited Staatsburgh. He lived on an estate named Ellerslie that was previously owned by Ruth’s grandparents.  There is no indication that Winthrop and Alice were unhappy, and they had six children before she passed away from appendicitis at age 38 in 1917.  There was little in the press about them during their marriage, which may also indicate that their marriage was happy or at least relatively peaceful.

Alice Morton Rutherfurd (1879-1917)

After their marriage, Rutherfurd commissioned architect Whitney Warren, who designed Grand Central Station, to design their home in New Jersey. In the grand living room, Rutherfurd had the Rutherfurd and Morton families coat of arms carved into the wall in stone. He also had a home in Aiken, South Carolina and after Alice’s death, Winthrop had an estate built there which he called Ridgeley Hall.

Rutherfurd Hall home in Allamuchy, NJ

After his wife died, Rutherfurd needed help raising his children, so a young woman named Lucy Mercer became part of his household. Some have said that she was hired as a governess or nanny, but her cousin reported that such a position was out of the question. Even though Lucy and her family were in want of money and dealing with some hardship, she was still of a certain social class. She had previously been the social secretary for Eleanor Roosevelt, but left that position after Eleanor reportedly found the love letters between Lucy and Franklin, her husband. Divorce was discussed, but we all know the Roosevelts remained married even if Lucy Mercer was a continued shadow over their marriage. Rutherfurd was considered one of the most eligible widowers of the day and his charms must have worked on Lucy. Though he was 58 and she was only 29, they married in 1920 and then had one child together.

Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd (1891-1948)

 The match was advantageous for both of them. Rutherfurd was rich and could provide Lucy with wealth and position, and he needed a partner and mother for his children, of which the youngest was just two when his first wife died. Even though she was 29 and much younger than Winthrop, Lucy was well past the ideal age for marriage.  But were they in love?  We can’t know for sure, but we do know that she became a supportive wife and mother. Rutherford’s son Guy, who was five when they married, later said, “She was never a stepmother. I never considered her anything but my mother. She was a fantastic woman, beautiful, and very loving.” Friends of Lucy’s later reported that “[Winthrop] worshipped the ground she walked on…he was desperately in love with her…” And in his later years she devoted herself to caring for him. He suffered a few strokes and was eventually confined to a wheelchair before his death in March 1944.

Winthrop Rutherfurd & Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, circa 1920s

Though it seems that Lucy kept in touch with FDR, she did not see him frequently until Winthrop  died in 1944. She was quoted as saying that “she could not do that to dear Wintie.” However, a week after his burial Lucy went to Hyde Park for the first time and spent the day with FDR. They continued to see each other and we do know that Lucy was present in Warm Springs, Georgia when FDR died the following year.  There is also a record that Roosevelt visited Rutherfurd Hall in New Jersey in September 1944.  Lucy’s daughter and step-children fondly remembered meeting the President and appreciating his interest in their well-being. There is a lot more that can be found about Lucy Mercer’s relationship with the President than her relationship with her husband, but she was committed to him and cared for him when he became ill. Winthrop Rutherford’s loves spanned over fifty years and found him connected to both European and American royalty.

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