Monday, March 12, 2018

Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt - Revisited

Last night I returned from vacationing in Asheville, North Carolina.  It is a very beautiful place and I had to do all the touristy things including a trolley tour and visit to the Biltmore Estate. And I had an awesome "Bethlehem History Moment" while mixing with the hoards of people touring the famous mansion.

First, here's a picture of the house taken from their website (  It doesn't show the five million people that were there the day we were. (If you don't like crowds don't go on a Saturday.  Altho I must say, the place is very well run and we had a very nice experience!)

As you go along the self-guided tour, you come to the Tapestry Room.  My eyes were already starting to glaze over a little by this point, but I did turn around to look behind me and saw these portraits on either side of the door.  Who are they?  I wondered.

So I read the tour book, and lo and behold, the woman on the left is our very own Maria Louisa Kissam! She married William Henry Vanderbilt right here in Bethlehem on September 28, 1841. Pop over to this blog post from last year for the story about how they met.

What a fun surprise!

That's Maria Louisa - portrait by John Singer Sargent.
And that's her son George Vanderbilt - who had this whole amazing Biltmore Estate built -
portrait also by Sargent
The portrait on the right is Edith Vanderbilt - daughter-in-law of Maria Louisa.
So, then I started imagining this young woman, who grew up in Coeymans (!) and her experiences in this particular house. Her son's home. 

Below is the whole write up that appeared in the New York Times when Maria Louisa died in 1896. I copied and pasted from because I really want you to read it!  I don't think she ever forgot her roots and upbringing in rural Albany County. 

Mrs. W. H. Vanderbilt Dead.

Stricken with heart failure at Scarborough.

Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt died suddenly yesterday afternoon at the country residence of her daughter, Mrs. Eliott F. Shepard, at Scarborough, N. Y. of heart failure. She had suffered from a weak heart for several years, but her demise was entirely unexpected. Mrs. Vanderbilt had been at Mrs. Shepard's house for about three weeks, and was present at the wedding of her grand-daughter, Edith Shepard, to Ernesto Fabbri. About noon yesterday she dressed for her daily drive and appeared to be in good health. But just before the carriage arrived she had an attack of heart failure, and decided to abandon the drive. She went back up stairs, and about 1:30 o'clock her heart failed to act and in a moment she was dead. The end came painlessly. Dr. Constant, a local physician, was summoned when the attack came, but his efforts to prolong life were unavailing. Dr. James W. McLane of 51 West Thirty-eight Street, the family physician in New York, was notified by telegraph. He hastened to Scarborough as fast as a special engine could convey him, but Mrs. Vanderbilt was dead when he arrived. The only relatives with Mrs. Vanderbilt when she died were her daughter, Mrs. Shepard, and her sister, Mrs. Bromley, Cornelius Vanderbilt is at Newport convalescing from his recent attack of paralysis. He will be unable to go to Scarborough, but will come to New York for the funeral. William K. Vanderbilt was in New York. George Vanderbilt is at Biltmore, N.C. and Frederick was at Hyde Park, on the Hudson. Mrs. William D. Sloane, another daughter, is at Lenox, Mass; Mrs. Seward Webb is at Shelbourne, Mrs. Fabbri is on her way to England, Mrs. H. McK. Twombly was at Madison, N. J. and Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, who was Gertrude Vanderbilt, is in Japan. All members of the family who were near New York arrived at Scarborough last evening. Chauncey M. Depew and James Hatmaker, Cornelius Vanderbilt's private secretary, went to Scarborough yesterday afternoon. Dr. Depew said last night no arrangements for the funeral had been made. The body will probably be brought to New York to day and the funeral will be held from the home at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-first Street Monday or Tuesday. Definite arrangements for the funeral cannot be made until the members of the family meet. The body will be buried in the family vault at New Dorp, Staten Island. The life of Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt was one of Aladdin like changes. She passed through every saga from a poor farmer's wife on Staten Island to a palace on Fifth Avenue and the distinction of being the wife of one of the wealthiest men in the world.

She was married to William H. Vanderbilt in 1841. Her husband at that time was a clerk in the office of Dean Robinson & Co., bankers in Wall Street, at a salary of $16.00 per week. The old Commodore took very little notice of either his son or his daughter-in-law. William was bound to "go to the dogs" anyway, he thought, and he did not intend to waste his substance and energy in trying to prevent the inevitable. The young people did not have sufficient means to furnish a house, so they boarded in East Broadway, which was then a very good part of the city, living happily on their small income. The additional responsibility impelled the young husband to devote greater energies to business. Indeed, the firm was seriously considering the advisability of taking him into partnership, when he was obliged to give up indoor work on account of the failure of his health. His father, realizing that, unless he did something, his son would soon die, purchased for him a little farm at New Dorp, Staten Island, and told him to make the best of it. Thither the young wife accompanied her husband. They found the farm to be seventy acres of unimproved land. They were both ignorant of farm life, but together they undertook a calling which required patience, sagacity, economy, and untiring energy. The motto of the husband was never to attempt what he could not do, and never to fail where work would win. The wife, with a thrift inherited from her sturdy ancestor, aided him in every way. In these early struggles, William H. Vanderbilt often said, her influence was potent for great good, and to that influence he attributed much of his courage at this period of his life. Under the combined efforts of the two the barren little farm was transformed and soon brought in a good income. Life became easier for the young wife. Her husband, by his energy, soon had 350 acres under cultivation. Then came the reconciliation of the father and son. The Commodore at last believed there might be "something in William." From that time there was no more farm work for the young wife. Her husband was soon after made receiver for the insolvent Staten Island Railroad. So well did he handle this property that from on extreme the father went to the other. Nothing was too good for him. Position after position was given him, until, in the old age of the Commodore, William H. Vanderbilt was his father's confidential adviser-at his death the principal heir. During these changes the wife steadily devoted herself to her household and her increasing family of children. She was exceedingly simple in her mode of life. She rose early and after attending to her household duties spent most of her time in the care of her children. After they were married she took the same interest in her grandchildren, visiting them or having some of them brought to her every day. Before she became enfeebled she was accustomed to take a drive in Central Park every afternoon, accompanied by one of her daughters. She always dined very quietly and retired early. Mrs. Vanderbilt was of a religious disposition and very regular in her attendance at St. Bartholomew's Church, Fifth Avenue. She was charitable, but in an unostentatious way. Her name seldom appeared in the list of the leading charities, but it is known that she contributed largely to them in a quiet manner. It is said she generally requested that her name should not be mentioned with her contributions.

From the New York Times November 7, 1896.

And finally,

Further along in the tour, in the Oak Sitting Room is the portrait below.  The guide book says this is "Mr. Vanderbilt's aunt, Mrs. Benjamin Kissam." So a sister-in-law to Maria Louisa.  It was also painted by John Singer Sargent.

1 comment: