Most of us know Theodore Dreiser as the author of An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie, and Jennie Gerhardt, but in his lifetime, Dreiser was known for much more. A master story teller and cultural historian, Dreiser’s Trilogy of Desire has fallen off the cliff of popular consciousness, relegated to the academic world. Even more obscure is the great novelist’s connection with a long-forgotten but meticulously maintained mausoleum on Green-Wood Cemetery’s Cronus Path.
The Financier, The Titan, and The Stoic, published over a 32-year period, the last volume posthumously), tell the life story of Charles T. Yerkes, a Philadelphia securities manipulator and streetcar magnate whose wheelings and dealings landed him in jail in 1870. Yerkes, re-named Frank Algernon Cowperwood by Dreiser, managed to leave prison after less than a year and then rose and prospered in the tide of robber baron plunder that swept over America in the last quarter of the 19th century. Yerkes’ grasp was transcontinental: it was he who brought about the consolidation of the London municipal railway system, after decades of existence as a hodgepodge of competing companies created by Parliamentary intrigues. Yerkes’ genius for understanding the linchpins of any capitalist system that relied on government franchises for its existence was equally effective in England as it was in Philadelphia and then Chicago, to which he had repaired after being driven from business in his birthplace in the earliest scandal of his career.
Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan: these names remain in common parlance fourteen decades after their notorious shenanigans on the New York Stock Exchange and across the commodity and securities markets of Europe and the United States. Yerkes’ name has been forgotten, though: a simple granite Grecian temple is all that remains of a man larger than life, a dozen or so yards from the edge of Cornus Path at Green-Wood Cemetery. The structure’s columns and pilasters are stained with moss, the giant bronze doors foreboding. Two Medici lions hold the handles in their jaws, warding off all visitors. But who would harm the memory of a man and wife whom Dreiser immortalized as history never would? Raised block capitals adorn the dentilled architrave: CHAS. T. YERKES lies therein, his estranged second wife, Mary Adelaide by his side.
MARY ADELAIDE YERKES CHARLES T. YERKES
Dreiser’s thirst for stories of despair and destruction was unquenchable., though just how and why he became obsessed with Yerkes’ life is unclear. The Trilogy of Desire occupied a major portion of his working life during his last thirty-two years. First with The Financier, chronicling Yerkes’ rise and fall on the Philadelphia “ ‘change,” (as the Stock Exchange was called after the Civil War), then with The Titan, wherein Yerkes leaves Eastern State Penitentiary after a conviction for fraud, moves to Chicago to start anew and fights to the top of the local traction industry, and finally with The Stoic (completed by his widow after Dreiser’s death), readers are treated to an epic tale of greed and lust, intermixed with a sympathetic portrait of a man driven by forces beyond human comprehension.
Yerkes (1837-1905) was the son of a Quaker banker who was expelled for marrying Charles’ non-Quaker stepmother. Charles’ biological mother died when he was five. Young Yerkes started his business career in 1854 as a clerk in a grain brokerage, and with the help of his father, formed a securities brokerage within five years. Business prospered, particularly when Charles formed close associations with corrupt municipal officials, married well, and began dealing in Philadelphia city securities.
In the late 1860s, Charles and his first wife, Susanna, built an enormous mansion in the 20th Ward, at 1535 Girard Avenue, where many post-Civil War nouveaux riches had flocked. the neighborhood, including the adjacent upper Broad Street, was lined with great houses. Yerkes spent $35,ooo to erect his new home, adjacent to his father’s. The city’s elite, though, continued to dwell far south, near Rittenhouse Square, but Charles, with his charm and sterling reputation, ingratiated himself with Philadelphia’s leading bankers.
1535 Girard Avenue survives to this day, albeit in much-reduced circumstances. The Girard Avenue streetcar still plies the avenue, its ancient clattering rolling stock clinging to the antiquated catenary, sparking through what is now a poor African-American neighborhood. Vacant lots and stray cats abound; Yerkes’ father’s home is no more. The ghostly monument to domestic abundance stands, empty and forlorn.
The financial panic that ensued with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 led to the collapse of a elaborate house of cards that Yerkes had painstakingly built, and he was convicted of fraud and sent to the notorious (and still extant) Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue .
After serving only seven months of a thirty-three month sentence, Yerkes was released and began to rebuild his career, painfully and slowly. His complex investments in attempting to consolidate Philadelphia street car lines suffered greatly with his conviction, but the financial skills he acquired and practiced bode well for him when in 1881 he moved to Chicago to start over. By 1881, Yerkes had also divorced his first wife of 22 years and remarried his long-standing Philadelphia mistress, Mary Adelaide Moore, who would be entombed alongside him in their Green-Wood mausoleum, despite Yerkes serial philandering and the couple’s bitter estrangement by the times of their deaths.
Chicago recovered rapidly from the Great Fire, and one of the principal drivers of its growth was its streetcar system. With suburbs springing up almost over night, groups of investors battled each other to secure the necessary franchises both from the City itself as well as suburban jurisdictions. First teaming up with a local grain broker for introductions to local bankers, Yerkes quickly turned his attention to the traction business and worked feverishly and painstaking to gain the grudging respect of both the business and society communities in the booming town. One deft move after another brought Yerkes fame and fortune in Chicago, though he and his second wife (renamed Aileen by Dreiser in The Trilogy of Desire) were never truly and thoroughly accepted in the best social circles in Chicago. As with so many aspiring couples, Charles and Mary Yerkes developed a significant interest in collecting art, and began spending more and more time in New York City, the epicenter of such activities. Yerkes had constant business in New York with Wall Street financiers who bankrolled his Chicago ventures, and he soon embarked on a building project at 864 Fifth Avenue, erecting a magnificent mansion with gallery space galore, completed in 1896. Pieces by many old masters adorned the gallery walls and an opulent interior garden complemented large public rooms and the many private boudoirs and baths.
864 FIFTH AVENUE
Yerkes’ appetite for beautiful women was no less than his desire to surround himself with costly artwork, and New York provided a bounty of dishes to feed his insatiable appetite. One such delicacy came in the form of Emilie Grigsby, a highly cultured and refined graduate of the Ursuline Convent school in Brown County, Ohio, who was sixteen years old when she met Yerkes. Emilie was much sought after in New York during her frequent visits with Mama.
At the outset, Emilie was able to hide the fact that her mother was a Lexington, Kentucky widow who ran a high-class bordello in Cincinnati, Ohio to support her children’s education. The mustachioed magnate was forty-two years her senior when the couple met on the New York social circuit, and despite Yerkes’ son’s attraction to young Emilie, the money hungry girl took the obvious path. Yerkes, Sr. was smitten, and nature quickly took its course. At Park Avenue and 68th Street, only two blocks away from the Yerkes mansion at 864 Fifth Avenue, another splendiferous castle rose, paid for by you know who.
EMILIE GRIGSBY’S MANSION
Completed in 1898, Emilie’s mansion replaced a row of brownstone homes of a generation earlier. Twenty feet deep—the width of a single house on 67th Street—it stretched northward 100 feet along Park Avenue, halfway to 68th Street. The white granite mansion rose five stories, capped by a tiled roof of peaked dormers, finials and exuberant cresting behind a tall stone balustrade.
The interior reflected Emilie’s refined tastes, and was described a few years later “Her home was indeed beautiful, not the gorgeous, dazzling type that vaunts its wealth, nor the soulless kind that argues the decorator, but beautiful with a beauty that bespoke an innate delicacy in its owner, a good taste that was the outcome not of a few years’ education and travel, but of the culture of centuries.”
Yerkes lavished his “ward” with the funds to furnish her home and she spent freely. The New York Times would say “There are a great many handsome things in the house, some beautiful old ones, including rugs and tapestries, everything is expensive, and the general effect shows a florid taste which has been catered to with a lavish hand.”
Albert Herter painted the canvas panels that were then applied to the ceilings and walls. One guest bedroom was lined with fifteen needlework tapestries, each costing $15,000. Her music room engulfed the entire fourth floor and included a carved Vernis Martin piano, covered entirely in gold leaf. In this room was a chair covered in ivory carvings. “This chair, which is of the highbacked side variety, is placed upon a small dais at the one end of the room as a further warning to the rash visitor that it is for ornament rather than use,” said the Times.
An avid collector, Emilie filled the mansion with art—a collection of jade, miniatures including one of Henry VIII, Flemish tapestries and paintings. There was a Louis XVI “rose room,” a Napoleonic bedroom, and Emilie’s own room paneled in Italian walnut decorated with blue and white Chinese porcelains.
The library housed expensively bound volumes. “The bookcases and closets were all built into the walls, and the doors set in panels matching exactly the paneling of the rooms. The collection of books, shelved behind these carved doors, is said to be valuable,” said the Times. A personal bookplate was designed for Emilie by Renee Lalique, the only such item attributed to the famous master of reedy designs.
Emilie’s appreciation of art and antiques did not get in her way of decorating, at least in one instance. The dining room was decorated with old Flemish tapestries that hung above the wainscoting. To tie in the high-backed chairs, she upholstered them with similar tapestries. When someone lamented the destruction of centuries-old works of art, Emilie replied “But I couldn’t have had my chairs if I had not cut the tapestries.” Emilie now had the financial means to rescue her mother from her scandalous profession and invited her to live in New York. That being accomplished, she turned her attention to the one thing she wanted most of all: social acceptance.
As the summer season drew to a close in 1900, the social gossip sheet Town Topics announced “Mrs. S. B. Grigsby and Miss E. B. Grigsby…are to make a bid for society here this Winter. The daughter is, apparently, the holder of the family funds, which are large.” Society, as yet, had not ferreted out the source of the “family funds.” That season Emilie purchased a box in the Metropolitan Opera House among the city’s elite. While pearl-draped socialites studied the Southern newcomer carefully, she won the approval of some, like Ellen Dunlap Hopkins who said “The girl to me was a poem.” In Europe her grandiose style of traveling drew attention. Taking along her retinue of servants—all black—she hired private railroad cars and sometimes entire trains to transport her, her baggage and ponderous staff. She earned the nickname abroad “the American princess.”
The wagging tongues and suspicious minds of Manhattan’s wealthy wanted desperately to know the pedigree of this mysterious, refined woman who owned a Park Avenue mansion and had apparently unlimited funds. It would not be long before the story of Emilie’s mother was discovered as well as the source of the fortune. The doors of Fifth Avenue quickly began closing. Society delicately referred to Emilie as Charles Yerkes’s “ward,” as Mary Yerkes lived on in their Fifth Avenue mansion privately suffering the indignation. Emilie was now extremely wealthy, accomplished, and shunned. The press began calling her 660 Park Avenue home “the mystery house.”
In the summer of 1905 Emilie was in London with Yerkes, who was now 68, when he became seriously ill. She nursed him for five weeks. Yerkes had to leave London short of his greatest goal: the consolidation of the London underground was not yet complete. Its mastermind was condemned to stop short of the Promised Land, a sinner far greater than Moses, for sure.
Back in New York a few months later, Yerkes lay near death. The millionaire was staying at the Waldorf-Astoria rather than the Fifth Avenue mansion and as the end neared he pleaded to see Emilie, rather than his wife. The Times reported that although “There were trained nurses in attendance on the dying man, his requests for her were so strong that Dr. Loomis considered it essential that she should be permitted to assist in nursing him, and be near him when he wishes for her presence.”
“The meeting gave great distress to the young woman and calm to the dying man. She did not remain in the hotel, but she was with Mr. Yerkes constantly, and only her presence seemed to keep him at peace. His attendants in the last few days say that Miss Grigsby’s grief was profound and distressing. She continually visited the sick chamber, however, and her visits there were welcomed and advised by the physician for purely professional reasons.” The doctor advised “against the visit of Mrs. Yerkes,” and when he died she was sitting in an adjoining room with her sister. She considered going to his bed just before his passing, but told her sister “It is too late now.” Afterwards, as she left the hospital she said “I think I did right. He treated me shamefully.”
There was no mention of Emilie Grigsby in the Yerkes will, but the rafts of creditors who made mincemeat of Yerkes’ assets at his death made the issue moot. Emilie had been well taken care of. Although she continued on in her lavish lifestyle, her bitterness towards Manhattan society festered. She spent more time abroad; away from the elite social circle that was closed to her and died in 1964, 59 years after her paramour’s passing.
In The Stoic, Dreiser chronicles Frank Cowperwood’s last days with tremendous fidelity to the facts of Yerkes’ sorry passing. Emilie Grigsby is known as Berenice in the novels, but otherwise the account of Yerkes’ final illness and his passing are a wonderfully and colorfully elaborated version of the facts as reported in the press. Yerkes’ funeral and entombment at Green-wood Cemetery are lyrically rendered by Dreiser. One could imagine that he bore eye witness at the edge of Cronus Path as the hearse made its way to the mausoleum’s gaping doors, and a woeful chapter in Mary Adelaide Moore Yerkes’ and Emilie Grigsby’s lives came to an end:
Accordingly, the next day at noon, the funeral cortege began forming in front of the Cowperwood mansion. Groups of people gathered on the streets to observe the spectacle. Following the hearse was the carriage containing Aileen, Frank A. Cowperwood, Jr., and Cowperwood’s daughter, Anna Templeton. And then, one by one, the other carriages moved into line, and proceeded along the highway, under an overcast sky, until finally they passed through the gates of Greenwood Cemetery. The gravel drive gradually mounted a long incline, bordered by heavy trees, behind which ranged stones and monuments of all descriptions. About a quarter of mile in, as the drive continued to rise, a roadway branched off to the right, and a few hundred feet farther on, between great trees, the tomb loomed solemnly high and majestic… It stood alone, no other monument being within thirty feet of it, a grey, austere, and northern version of a Greek temple. Four graceful columns of modified Ionic design formed the “porch” and supported a plain triangular pediment, without decoration or religious symbol of any sort. Above the doors of the tomb, in heavy square-cut letters was his name: FRANK ALGERNON COWPERWOOD. Three graduated platforms of granite were piled high with flowers,and the massive bronze double doors stood wide open, awaiting the arrival of the distinguished occupant. As all must have felt who viewed it for the first time, this was a severely impressive artistic achievement in the matter of design, for its tall and stately serenity seemed to dominate the entire area…In one of the carriages Berenice sat silently beside Dr. James, gazing at the tomb that twas to seal her beloved away from her forever. Tears she could not cry, and would not. For why seek to oppose an avalanche which had already gone so far to obliterate the import of life itself, for her? [quoted from pp. 271-2, paperback edition, Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., New York: 1974].
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am deeply indebted for information and images used herein to Tom Miller’s The Daytonian in Manhattan Blog piece http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-lost-emilie-grigsby-house-park.html and to Bruce Allen’s blog pieces
http://ahistoryblog.com/2012/08/16/george-tyson-yerkes-1837-1905-buy-up-old-junk-fix-it-up-a-little-and-unload-it-upon-other-fellows-2/. My gratitude is hereby extended to both bloggers who do an admirable job!]
The information about 1535 Girard Avenue in Philadelphia as well as much more factual material herein was adopted from John Branch’s magnificent biography Robber Baron – The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago: 2006.