Monday, August 12, 2013

Before Marriage Equality, This: The Union of Elizabeth Drexel and Harry Lehr


Boldini Portrait of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr
1905 portrait of Elizabeth Lehr. 
This 1905 portrait by Giovanni Boldini, which hangs at The Elms in Newport, RI, caught my eye yesterday and I wanted to know more about the beautiful woman in the glorious orange dress. She is Elizabeth "Bessie" Wharton Drexel, and her second husband was Henry Symes Lehr; this is their story.

Elizabeth was a well-to-do Manhattan socialite from the Drexel banking family. At 21, she had married John Vinton Dahlgren. Ten years later, John was dead and Elizabeth was left a young widow with a seven-year-old son. But one of her friends introduced her to the dashing Harry Lehr--an extremely popular (but distinctly unmoneyed) man about town. He was from "a good family" in Baltimore which had seen a reversal of fortune; like many young men and women of the time he saw his opportunity for redemption in marrying up. 

Lehr was handsome and fun, told a good story, and was a great friend of many women socialites in Manhattan and Newport (including Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Caroline Astor, and Mamie Fish), who found him amusing. He helped them to choose their dresses, plan their parties, and lure their wayward husbands back. He loved to perform--telling jokes, playing the piano, and often dressing as a woman in various living tableaux.

Photograph of Harry Lehr
Harry Lehr.
He swept Bessie Drexel Dahlgren off her feet, and they married on June 1, 1901. The New York Times wedding announcement noted that Elizabeth was "sweetly gowned in white, instead of grey or heliotrope, the customary selection of widows." Harry was referred to as the "Beau Nash of today" and the "dictator of form and fashion and leader in the '400'."

After their wedding they traveled to a Baltimore hotel to spend the night. Bessie recalled later that she had arranged for a lovely wedding night supper to be set up in the dining room of their suite: "Caviar, quails in aspic, his favorite brand of champagne, the cabinet of cigars I had bought for him, along with the gold and enamel watch set beside his plate." But Harry sent word, via the servants, that he would dine in his room, and she would have to dine alone. Shortly thereafter he showed up to tell the horrified new bride in person that he did not intend to consummate the marriage, that he did not love her, and that he had only married her for her money. 

"I married you because the only person on earth I love is my mother. I want above everything else to keep her in comfort. Your father's fortune will enable me to do so. But there is a limit to sacrifice. I cannot condemn myself to the misery of playing the role of adoring lover for the rest of my life." Harry did promise to treat her well in public and to give her the freedom to do whatever she wanted.

Photograph of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, dressed for presentation to Kaiser Wilhelm
Dressed for presentation to the Kaiser.
Today we would ask why Elizabeth Drexel Lehr did not simply exit the marriage. But she came from a Catholic family and Elizabeth's mother had actively banned from her company the few divorced women who traveled in her social circle. (The Drexels were so Catholic that Elizabeth's cousin, Katharine Drexel, became a Saint!) Elizabeth therefore felt she could not suggest divorce to her mother and had no one else in whom to confide. And of course she didn't know Harry's other secret, which would be obvious to anyone today: he was gay.

The story is so sad to me because both of these beautiful and talented people had to spend the next 28 years together in a loveless and unconsummated marriage, which lasted until Harry's death. His life prospects without a "good" marriage were probably bleaker than hers--to be poor and gay was not an attractive option. But life for her as a married woman (especially in a marriage with a man who did not wish to control her activities) would be much better than the one she would live as a rich widow (or as an ostracized divorcĂ©e). 

Both of them had outside relationships during the marriage, and after her mother's death Bessie came close to divorce when she fell in love with a man she identifies in her book as "Mr. X". But Mr. X died before she could proceed with the divorce.

Bessie and Harry lived in New York and summered in Newport during the early years of their marriage. They lived primarily in Paris after World War I, though Newport continued to beckon in the summer.

King Lehr and the Gilded Age, a book by Elizabeth Drexel LehrHarry Lehr died in 1929; after his death Bessie read his diaries which revealed his painful secret to her. In 1935 she authored a book about Harry and their life and times entitled "King Lehr" and the Gilded Age. (The quotes above from Bessie and Harry originated in this book, though they have been requoted in a number of other blogs, articles, and reviews.)

Seven years later she married the Irish Peer, Lord Decies. They were together only a few years; when Hitler invaded Paris, Baroness Decies fled to New York and Lord Decies stayed in Britain. They died four months apart in 1944. 

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