Love, Fiercely – Manhattan Romance in the Gilded Age

Edith Minturn’s face was immortalized as the “New American Girl” in a portrait by a John Singer Sargent, and she was the model for the famous 65 foot high statue of Daniel Chester French’s Republic displayed at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition. Using the painting as her inspiration, Jean Zimmerman reveals the lives of  Edith Minturn, heir to a shipping magnate, (nicknamed Fiercely by her brother) and her husband, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, in a story that reads like a fictional romance in Love, Fiercely.

At the turn of century that Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” fashion and propriety  ruled wealthy families.

“… Edith Wharton could have quite naturally placed the behaviors of the Minturn girls into one of {her} novels.”

Both Edith and Newton enjoyed the perks of the rich – European travel, posh surroundings, servants, tailor-made clothes.  Newton chose architecture over the family banking business, and  Edith rebelliously fought for women’s rights – she turned down his first proposal of marriage.  The famous portrait came to represent a new freedom for women, with Edith’s pose “with attitude,” the position of the well-placed hat and Newton’s fading into the background.

Using a conversational style, Zimmerman looks back at Manhattan’s history and the famous families who created the foundation for what it is today. Part of the Stokes family mansion still stands as the Morgan Library on 34th street (where I visited the Jane Austen collection not long ago) and their famous portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The couple who look out from the painting changed  Manhattan with a legacy that endures today – through buildings he designed,  reformation of low-income housing, Edith’s introduction of the new concept of kindergarten, and Newton’s Iconography of Manhattan Island – a six-volume visual history of New York that exhausted “its creator’s fortune, health, and grip on sanity.”

Whenever I can wander the halls of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. or the Metropolitan Museum in New York City,  the portraits always tease me with lingering questions – I wonder who were these patricians and did they do anything besides “sit” for the artist. Jean Zimmerman delivers a well-researched answer on one that reveals the personalities behind the paint. Edith Minturn Stokes and Newton Phelps Stokes are worth knowing.

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