Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra
And Edith with golden hair . . .
A thick veil descends on Carow family history after the closing of the Tyler home. Were it not for a few glimpses culled from Edith’s association with the Roosevelts, and from the nostalgia of her old age, little could be told. She was to become an avid collector of information concerning her early ancestors, but throughout her life she compulsively destroyed data on her more immediate family, especially Charles Carow. “Mother . . . never told us stories about her childhood at all,” complained her future stepdaughter.
The reason why Edith did not reminisce was simple: the subject pained her. Despite her taciturnity, a few facts are certain. First, Charles was a failure in business; second, he was an alcoholic; third, he fell down the hold of one of his ships, hit his head, and was never quite stable afterward; fourth, Gertrude became increasingly hypochondriac; and, fifth, the family standard of living went into decline.
At first, however, this decline was barely perceptible. During the war years, at least, life for the Carows went normally. On April 18, 1865, Gertrude’s last child, Emily, was born and was placed, along inside of a wall where the snow ceased and it was quite warm. We then went on until we came to a small hole through which we saw a red flame inside the mountain. I put my alpine stock in and it caught fire right away. The smoke nearly suffacated us. We then went on and saw a larger hole through which I could fall if I liked. We put some pebbles down and they came up with pretty good force. We here sat down to lunch. We ate some of the eggs boiled in Vesuvius sand. Ellie and I played with some soildiers and then we began the decent. This was on the opposite side of the mountain. I was the last, then Mama with Papa on one and a guide on the other side of her and then the rest. We went down the side in loose dirt in which I sunk up to my knees.
The decent was verry steep. Mama was so exausted she could hardly walk. When we got to the bottom we mounted our horses and went along a miserable road. There were places where the men who were on foot could hardly walk so it was verry hard for the horses.
We then drove to the hotel. But now goodby
Evere your loving friend,
While Teedie went on to Rome and Florence, Edith began to feel lonely. She was glad not to be spending the winter in the city, she told Conie, “for I shall miss you much and if I stay here I can play with a beautiful sled that Uncle Guss gave me . . .”
With the Roosevelts away the nursery classes had been abandoned, and there was some talk of sending Edith to school. But her enrollment was postponed, purportedly because “Mammma thinks my eyes are not very strong.” In a complaint common to bookish children, Edith added: “She and Mame whenever they see a book in my hands give me no peace till I lay it down.”
Every week, however, she attended classes at Mr. Dodsworth’s famous school for dancing and deportment, at the corner of Twenty-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue. The strict old dancing master and his wife taught succeeding generations of New Yorkers not only how to waltz and polka on the wide slippery floor, but also how to conduct themselves in society. A later pupil remembered them both vividly.
Mr. Dodsworth was the impersonation of elegance and etiquette, coupled with a stinging sarcasm and discipline. We left our coats and little fur-lined shoes in the room downstairs. We then shook hands and curtsied to Mrs. Dodsworth, whose hair had the stiffest ondulé, whose voice had the most liquid modulation, and whose person was sheathed in a dress covered with spangles or embroidered with pearls, or poured into a creation of cloth of gold. She sat at a painted Louis XV desk with a register to mark our attendance which she did with a fine pen and holding her little finger slightly extended while she wrote. Mr. and Mrs. Dodsworth were the visible expression of all that it meant to be a lady and a gentleman in those days.
When the Roosevelts returned in the spring of 1870, they joined Edith at the dancing school, and quickly became the nucleus of an exclusive group. Fanny Smith was a member. “There was no fear of being a wallflower because we had . . . special badges and pledged either definitely or otherwise only to dance with one another.”
Years later, an outsider reminded Edith that “for every dance there was a scramble on the part of four Roosevelts, ‘Teddy,’ Elliott, Alfred and Emlen to secure you for a partner.” Apparently Theodore usually triumphed, because Edith saved the dance programs “on which his name was written oftener than any other boy’s.”
Gradually, over the next two decades, old established Oelrichs and Stevenses and newly arrived Fricks and Carnegies began to settle side by side in Fifth Avenue mansions which edged out the scattered shanties that had long bordered Central Park. Wealth, not breeding, now determined where people might live. The Roosevelts were able to follow the prosperous migration north; but other well-bred Knickerbockers who, like the Carows, had fallen on hard times were forced to choose less exalted neighborhoods.
In 1870 New York’s population, having almost tripled in thirty years, approached a million. Yet expansion was still entirely lateral. Skyscrapers did not exist, and Trinity Church spire remained the only vertical thrust of any stature. Large tracts along Fifth Avenue and Broadway consisted of empty lots, while Madison Avenue ended abruptly at Forty-second Street. Harlem was a small country town, and the riverside between West Seventieth and West 110th Streets was nothing more than a village.
Carriages, stagecoaches and four railroads running at street level created tremendous noise and smoke in midtown. Ill-paved roads littered with horse manure, and slimy gutters scavenged by pigs were breeding grounds for malaria and typhoid. Barefoot street urchins huddled in doorways and over gratings for warmth. Sanitation hardly existed in rat-ridden tenements; an average of seventy-eight people shared each slum privy. When cholera struck, as it frequently did, medical help was scarce. The infant-mortality rate was thirty percent, and life expectancy averaged only forty years.
Crime “was never so bold, so frequent, and so safe,” according to the diarist George Templeton Strong. “We breathe an atmosphere of highway robbery, burglary and murder. Few criminals are caught and fewer punished . . . We must soon fall back on the law of self-preservation.”