Puritan Princess

Today I have the story of the Salem girl who probably came closest to the Gilded Age “dollar princess” stereotype and scenario, whereby American money was wedded to English aristocracy. Yet Mary Crowninshield Endicott (1864-1957) did not really come that close at all: she was in fact quite wealthy but did not need to bail out either of her English non-aristocratic English husbands. Nonetheless, there was definitely something regal, if not royal, about her: of ancestry, of marriage, and definitely of bearing. I must admit that I’ve developed quite a girl-crush on her, and she obviously had scores of admirers in her own time, among them John Everett Millais, John Singer Sargent, and even Queen Victoria. I think she might be the ultimate Anglo-American, or at least Salem Anglo-American.

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NPG Ax36327; Mary Chamberlain (nÈe Endicott) by Eveleen Myers (nÈe Tennant)

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The Millais portrait (1890-91,© Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery); photograph by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant, 1890s, © National Portrait Gallery); and Sargent portrait (1902, National Gallery of Art) of Salem-born and -bred Mary Crowninshield Endicott Chamberlain.

Mary was born in the Tontine block on Warren Street in Salem to William Crowninshield Endicott, a direct descendant of John Endecott, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Ellen Peabody Endicott, granddaughter of one of the richest men in the United States, Captain Joseph Peabody. She was as close to “American aristocracy” as you could get at the time; in fact when she married the prominent British politician and statesman Joseph Chamberlain in 1888, her brother remarked that he was a bit too middle class. She was raised in Salem and Danvers: living in the Georgian Cabot-Endicott-Low house on Essex Street “in town” during most of the year and at the Peabody family’s Danvers estate, Glen Magna, during the summers.While her father served as Secretary of War during Grover Cleveland’s first administration in the later 1880s, the entire family moved to Washington, D.C., where she met Chamberlain, who was twice-widowed, more than twice her age and in the midst of a spectacular political career exemplified by parliamentary leadership and intense advocacy for progressive reform of both British social welfare policy and the British Empire. Clearly they were in the midst of an intense courtship over most of 1888, but come summer their engagement was vehemently denied in the press by “Miss Endicott’s family”: apparently her political father thought Mr. Chamberlain’s opposition to Irish Home Rule would be unpopular in America, but later, once the engagement was confirmed, the reasons for the denials were attributed to Miss Endicott’s “tact”, “reserve”, and desire for a quiet wedding. She would not get her wish: that fall, with the nuptials approaching in November, there was feverish anticipation on both sides of the Atlantic and a succession of newspaper articles offering up every little detail. My favorite piece is from the Boston Weekly Globe, dated November 14, 1888: it emphasizes the bride’s pedigree, the bridegoom’s wealth (an annual income of £150,000! Lavish estates in Birmingham and London!), her trousseau (7 “very costly” Worth dresses!), their wedding gifts (including a very big check from her maternal grandparents), and the fact that President and Mrs. Cleveland will be attending the wedding, to be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House.

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In this article, and all the others, there is as much fascination with Miss Endicott’s “lineage” as with the material details of the upcoming wedding. A characteristic observation: Miss Endicott is truly of a sufficiently high lineage for peerage [insert catty remark that her future husband is not, in fact, a peer]. She comes of Puritan stock that cannot be excelled. Her father, Hon. William E. Endicott, the present Secretary of War, is a lineal descendant of John Endicott, the first colonial governor of Massachusetts, and he has in his possession the famous sword with which Governor Endicott cut the cross from the king’s colors on March 4, 1635. Her great-grandfather, Jacob Crowninshield, was Secretary of the Navy during President Jefferson’s administration. Her mother is the daughter of George Peabody, the well-known merchant, philanthropist and poet. Through both her paternal and maternal ancestry Miss Endicott is descended from the same Puritan families from which came the illustrious hero of the Revolution, General Israel Putnam…….and on and on her ancestry goes. Another theme is Miss Endicott’s (again, “Puritan”–“Yankee” is never used; it’s too early for “Brahmin” and far too early for  “WASP”) reserve and discretion: after the wedding it is pointed out by EVERYONE that she wore a simple gray silk “traveling” dress for the ceremony rather than an elaborate gown. Still, there were all those Worth dresses: I could not any from the 1888 trousseau, but I did find the gray dress Mrs. Chamberlain wore in her Millais portrait a few years later, as well as a 1902 afternoon dress from her wardrobe, which was featured in the National Gallery of Australia’s 2004 exhibitionThe Edwardians: Secrets and Desires.

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Mrs. Endicott’s Worth gowns from 1890 and 1902, Fashion Museum, Bath and National Gallery of Australia.

After a brief honeymoon on the French Riviera, Mr.and Mrs. Chamberlain took up residence in England, both in London and at Highbury Hall, his stately home in Birmingham. Mary assumed social duties but seems also to have shared her new husband’s political ones, especially after he became Colonial Secretary in 1895. Secretary Chamberlain’s desire to reform the commercial structure of the British Empire has revived his reputation recently, as the free-trading block he envisioned seems to provide somewhat of a model for post-Brexit Britain. Mary traveled with him extensively over much of the next decade, and was often referred to as the Chamberlain’s “best and truest counsellor”. At home in England, Mary seems also to have become a favorite of the Queen. The American papers attest her royal approval to be tied, once again, to her “discretion”, of both dress and decorum: she disavowed the low-cut “decollete” gowns in favor of more modest apparel and stayed away from the Prince of Wales’s racy set. The British papers are not as forthcoming, but she did receive a rare gold (not silver) Diamond Jubilee medal from the Queen in 1897. Contrary to the 1904 Washington Times article below, however, Mary did not become the Countess of Highbury and the “first American peeress”: I’m not sure where this story came from, but it does illustrate the continuing interest in Mary Endicott Chamberlain. In the articles about Joseph Chamberlain’s death in 1914 (he had suffered a debilitating stroke in 1906), Mary, the “Puritan Aristocrat” remained the main focus of the American newspapers.

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The bride and bridegroom with Mr. Chamberlain’s children at Highbury in 1889: Back row, left to right: Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), Austen Chamberlain (1863-1937) and Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914). Front row, left to right: Miss H. Chamberlain and Mrs Mary Chamberlain (nee Endicott); “The Reception of the Right Honourable Joseph Chamberlain, MP, and his American Bride, at the Town Hall, Birmingham”, The Graphic, January, 1989; The dashing Colonial Secretary in 1895; Mr. and Mrs. Chamberlain in 1903; the Washington Times, 1904, and Boston Globe, 1914.

In late spring of 1916, Mrs. Chamberlain became engaged to another older, widowed, English gentleman: the Reverend William Hartley Carnegie, a Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster Cathedral. They were married in August in the Henry VII Chapel at the Cathedral, with her stepsons Austen, future Cabinet Minister and Nobel Laureate, walking her down the aisle and Neville, future Prime Minister, in attendance. The announcements in the Boston papers read: Salem Woman, Widow of Chamberlain, marries Canon of Westminster Abbey. This was the beginning of a much more private life for Mary Endicott, and after the Reverend Canon’s death in 1936, it became even more “quiet”, at least from the perspective of newspaper coverage. She would live for another twenty years, during which she did not make much news. There is extensive documentary evidence of her correspondence and close relationships with her two Chamberlain stepsons, but she survived them both. She is interred alongside her second husband in Westminster Abbey, with a simple inscription of “Mary Endicott” and a memorial bust of her first husband nearby.

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John Singer Sargent’s pencil study of Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain, 1902, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.


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