Two New York Ladies

“One curious thing I remember is the cattle going through the block at night, waking my sister and me.

“Sixty-fifth Street was a through street then. The cattle were going to the slaughterhouse. That’s what we were told, and I believe it. I don’t know what else they were doing there at night! In those days there was a slaughterhouse where the UN is now. And they would herd the cattle from the West Side through Central Park. Our house was on the north side of the street, and the bedrooms faced south; we looked out the window and could see them.”

Over time, random memories that initially might seem unimportant acquire a certain interest, a certain charm. Lelia Baldwin Tomes was talking about her childhood in a New York accent that has now largely disappeared, an accent where “room” sounded almost the same as “rum,” “third” had a decidedly rolled “r,” and the city of Greenwich, Connecticut, somehow was pronounced “Grinich.” Born at home on December 9, 1902, she was the daughter of W. Barton Baldwin, executive vice president of the Empire Trust Company, and the former Leila Sherman Blair. About 1906, the family moved from a brownstone at 443 West End Avenue to 33 East 65th Street, “a few doors from the Mayfair Hotel and a few doors from where Franklin Delano Roosevelt lived with his mother.”

Although the first-born of her siblings, Lelia often smilingly recounted her struggles with the domination attempts of her younger (and eventually much richer) sister, Ruth, a woman who felt herself to be in a position to judge whether or not Lelia’s friends were really “out of the top drawer.” Alas, these friends often failed Ruth’s test but it didn’t seem to affect Lelia’s relationships.

Over ninety and exceedingly frail when she was interviewed, Lelia seemed to have little energy left, but she had embarked a career when women of her background rarely did anything of the sort. For many years she worked for Steuben Glass, representing the company and traveling extensively for them. Then, after retiring, she sold real estate and was affiliated with several prestigious firms.

When discussing the early days, however, she perked up and showed unexpected enthusiasm. Leaning back on an upholstered chaise lounge in her small apartment on East 73rd Street, she petted Muffin, her Shih Tzu, and reflected on her life more than eighty years earlier. Her perfectly tailored red and black wool dress, her pearls, and her gentle voice all spoke eloquently of her background and breeding; but, despite its location and exquisite ornaments, the size and style of her apartment did not convey great wealth. That seemed to matter little. Lelia was at home and peaceful.

“The lights in the street were lit by gas; gas lighters would come along with a long thing and pry open the little window and light them. There were no radios, no televisions; and so, if there was any special news, a newspaper was printed, a one-sheet affair, and it was called an ‘extra,’ and newsboys would run through the street. ‘Extra, Extra!’ I can still hear them. And the children would rush down high stoops, some with American basements without a high stoop, and get a paper for the family.”

Asked about her education, Lelia explained, “I went to numerous schools. I went to Charlton. . . . It was on Park Avenue and 67th Street. And it then combined with an uptown school and afterward went out of existence. But it took boys and girls in the early days, and that was one of the few schools that did. Brearley and Chapin were only for girls. My sister and I left Charlton one year after school had started, however, because mother thought it was going downhill, which it was; and we went to Brearley, where we didn’t want to go, and we weren’t Brearley material anyway. They were only interested in college students and we weren’t going to college.

“After Brearley, I went to Mrs. J. D. Randall MacIver’s. It was a finishing school. It was located on East 75th Street, between Fifth and Madison, on the north side of the street. Later, no two pupils could agree on the exact address, but that’s where it was.”

And her recollections of travel were a far cry from today’s episodes of teeming airports and depersonalized service.

“It was, I think, in 1923, when the family went over on the Olympic and came back on the Majestic. We had special connections and special rooms and everything. You got inundated with bon voyage presents—flowers and candy and things—in your cabin. We went to Belgium, and I was asked to the ambassador’s for lunch, and I spilled water on the ambassador’s table. Ugh! Ignominious memory.

“On that same trip, Daddy had a friend, a French senator, Gaston Menier, who took us under his wing. His family owned Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley at the time and we stayed there. It’s the château that crosses the river. I had the bedroom going into Francois Premier’s all to myself because I was the oldest. It was scary in that room: tapestries on the wall and only flickering candlelight. You thought you might see a ghost! But it was thrilling, and when the crowds came to the chateau, the tourist crowds, we looked out of the windows and saw a man we knew from home.”

Georgina Van Rensselaer, one friend of Mrs. Tomes’ of whom her sister very much approved, was born in the same year, 1902, at 102 Madison Avenue. She was the daughter of the former Georgina Betts and T. Tileston Wells, a lawyer who served as the Romanian consul general in New York from 1919 to 1938. The family moved to 52 East 76th Street about 1908.

With her sparkling white hair, penetratingly intelligent eyes and abundance of fluttering pastels, Mrs. Van Rensselaer looked like central casting’s idea of the perfect Miss Marple. Into her nineties, she swam nude every day at her indoor pool in Bedford, New York, and she maintained a tradition of weekly lunch parties—“At Homes”—for her wide circle of friends.

Once, at a friend’s for tea and dressed in lavender ruffles, mauve gloves, lavender stockings, and a bright purple hat flaunting a nosegay of violets, she spoke of a daughter. Widening her China blue eyes, she declared in a breathy, little girl-like voice, “She’s an artist, you know. And quite eccentric. I don’t know where she gets it!”

“Georgina! Really!” exclaimed the friend, staggered by the spectacle of all that violet and mauve.

They both giggled.

At Coliba, her rambling and comfortable house that took its name from the Romanian word for cottage, she, like Lelia Tomes, was asked about her earliest memories. Looking past a large silver tray and into the roaring fire, she became somewhat abstracted as she spoke, seeming to be lost in her memories.

“102 Madison Avenue was my grandfather George Frederick Betts’ house. It was a large brownstone on the corner of Madison Avenue and 29th Street. And there was a courtyard in front with a magnolia tree!

“All the way up Madison Avenue there were private houses, and my governess would wheel me up to the Morgan Library on the corner of 37th Street in my carriage. Other children and their nurses used to congregate there. When we moved to 76th Street, we thought it far uptown and mother remembered going up there for picnics. My uncle, Samuel Betts, had picked mushrooms where Grand Central now stands.”

Interviewed in the early 1990s, Georgina continued, “Life was certainly not as hectic as it is now. I can remember driving around Central Park in the afternoon, then returning for a cup of tea by the fire. I remember when the Metropolitan Life Tower was the tallest building in New York, and then came the Woolworth Tower. I used to think it was very romantic to drive up to Grant’s Tomb with a beau and then go to a restaurant on the bluff overlooking the Hudson River. There we would have tea and Belgian waffles with wild strawberries, and sometimes we would go to New Jersey on the ferry.”

Life was also, in that particular segment of society, both more insulated and more luxurious than today.

“My godfather, Harris Fahnestock, gave me my coming-out party in his house just off Fifth Avenue on 65th Street. He had a ballroom that was beautifully decorated, and seven of my friends received with me. There were many young men to dance with us and the older generation also attended. I thought it a glamorous party. (I had a lame friend who sat and counted how many men cut in on you as you circled the ballroom. I think he said I had forty ‘cut-ins’ on the way around!) I wore a silver and white dress with a wreath of rosebuds from shoulder to waist.

“My memories of my coming-out year are very happy and I had a glorious time. Most of the dances took place at the Ritz Ballroom, but some at the Colony Club and a number at private houses. We always had dinner parties before the dance, so we entered with a group.

“One particular ball I remember was Estelle Manville’s Green Ball at the Ritz, where palm trees and a full moon made a romantic atmosphere. I wore my grandmother’s green ball dress, off the shoulder and with a full skirt. The Meyer Davis orchestra played all our favorite tunes—‘Dardanella’ and the songs from Oh Boy!

“The Autumn Ball [Tuxedo Park, New York] was the beginning of the debutante season, and I was invited by my cousins, the William McNeil Hoffmans, to stay over the weekend. Mother had ordered a rose brocade dress for the occasion. The night of the ball, the Hoffmans gave me a dinner party. Gordon Hamersley, my good friend, was there with his host, Coleman Drayton, and they decided to give me a good time. Indeed they did! I danced into the wee hours.

“The next day, when I woke up, a maid had lit the fire and brought up my breakfast. Gordon and Coleman Drayton visited later that morning, the latter bearing several jewelry boxes, which he placed on the table. ‘I brought Marie Antoinette’s jewels,’ he said. ‘Mother bought them and I thought you’d enjoy trying them on!’ I did so, and was thrilled to think that that unfortunate queen had touched and worn the very pearls, diamonds, and precious stones that I had draped around me!”

And because her father served as Romanian consul general in New York, Georgina had unique travel tales to relate.

“Our trip to Romania in 1922 was outstanding. It was like a scene from an operetta: the women working in the fields with colorful costumes, the officers strutting about in gorgeous uniforms. And we had charming friends to entertain us and show us the beauty of the countryside. Queen Marie invited us to lunch at the palace in Sinaia. Mother and I in our large black velvet hats and velvet dresses. Queen Marie in a lovely, becoming native costume and Queen Elizabeth of Greece similarly dressed. Princess Marie asked me to spend the day with her and we became fast friends. I was sent home in the royal car and was thrilled when the soldiers presented arms as I went by.”

Lelia Baldwin Tomes died in April 1994; her friend, Georgina Wells Van Rensselaer, in October 1997.

Asked during these interviews what was the most difficult thing about living in New York in these long gone days, the ladies answered differently.

Lelia Tomes considered the question for a while and then said, “The most difficult thing, I think, was whether you were asked to all the parties or not as you got a little older. You know, you wanted to be invited. I remember a lot of balls, beautiful ones in big private houses. The Vanderbilt house on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue took up a whole block. And there was a ball there, and there were balls at the Vanderbilt houses down the avenue. I wasn’t a debutante of the year; I don’t know who was. But I went and I had a good time some of the time, and a struggle some of the time.”

And although they were close friends, when asked the same question, Georgina had a different perspective.

“I don’t think it was difficult living in Manhattan in the old days. We had every comfort and no worries. Everything went on as usual and only got better and better!”

Issue Twenty Two