A Little Bit More about Lizzie

The other day I came upon another beautiful dress which was once worn by Elizabeth Goodhue Millett Fenollosa (1858-1920), a Salem girl who had a very interesting life, mostly because of her marriage: to fellow Salem native Ernest Fenollosa, who became a famous art historian/curator/professor and aficionado/advocate of all things traditional Japanese. They traveled together to Japan in their twenties in order for him to take up the post as the first professor of political economy at the newly established Tokyo University upon the recommendation of their fellow Salemite Edward Sylvester Morse. The westernization policies of the Meiji Restoration gave them both an unusual opportunity to expand their own horizons exponentially: Fenollosa became submerged in Japanese culture but we have fewer insights into Lizzie’s (as everyone seems to call her) intellectual life. But her material life is more accessible: through photographs among the Fenollosa collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library and items like her amazing dresses, donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by her family. Lizzie was the daughter of a Salem apothecary who grew up in a lovely, but quite simple, house on Buffum Street in North Salem: it’s so amazing to think of her plunge into such a new, exotic, and sumptuous culture in her twenties. I wish she kept a diary!

From Salem to Tokyo: Advertisement for Elizabeth Goodhue Millett’s father’s business, Salem Register, 1851; Her two silk dresses from the late 1880s donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by her daughter, Brenda Fenollosa Biddle (the bottom one is a Worth, which I also featured in this post); Two photographs of the Fenollosa’s Tokyo home, c. 1886, Houghton Library.

The Fenollosas remained in Japan from 1878 until 1890: his university contracts were renewed successively and in 1884 he was appointed Professor of Philosophy and Logic. Their two children, Ernest Kano and Brenda, were born in Tokyo in 1880 and 1883 respectively. Young Ernest died in the spring of 1887 in Salem and is buried in Harmony Grove Cemetery; Brenda is one of the key memorialists of her parents’ life in Japan, and we can only get glimpses of Lizzie’s life through her. Recalling her childhood in Tokyo, she remembered the Fenollosa house (called Kaga Yashiki) as “a large establishment” with “two butlers; a cook, with his two assistants; two laundresses; a seamstress; two gardeners; a night watchman; three jinrikisha men; the bath boy; mother’s maid; as well as my Chinese nurse and Japanese maid.”Large indeed! Again, the contrast between Lizzie’s lives in Salem and Tokyo seems dramatic. When the Fenollosas returned to the United States in 1890 upon his appointment as the first curator of Oriental Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Boston papers were a bit feverish in their reporting on the glamorous couple: the Boston Daily Globe reported that “he has a manner of much refinement to match his mental cultivation,” while “Mrs. Fenollosa is a pretty woman, who dresses stylishly and has been heard to compare Boston’s gowns and prices with those of Paris in a way not complimentary to local talent and conscience.” [ouch] Their residence, the “White house” on Commonwealth Avenue, was “most artistic, almost a museum of oriental furnishings.” But all came tumbling down several years later when the Fenollosas divorced in very public fashion: he had taken up with assistant at the museum, Mary McNeil, and she went to Minneapolis (the Reno of their day?] for an uncontested divorce. The late fall of 1895 was definitely a read all about it moment for them, and I can imagine that this was absolutely devastating for Lizzie, but I really don’t know.

The divorce headlines and stories have common themes: a childhood romance, her beauty, his intellect: “Miss Millett had been for years an acknowledged belle of Salem, being a perfect blonde, with a real peach-blown complexion, and the union of one so brilliant intellectually with one so beautiful in face and form, and possessing so sweet a disposition was looked upon as portending a future of marital happiness beyond a doubt.” But alas, it was not to last. Fenollosa married his assistant Mary McNeil, and they took off for New York and Japan, while Lizzie remained in Massachusetts. Every summer she was up north in some society location, chiefly North Conway and Bar Harbor, always well-dressed. Again, we seem to be able to get to her only through her beloved daughter Brenda, and longer stories surface coincidentally with the latter’s marriage in 1913 to Moncure Biddle of Philadelphia. It is revealed that Brenda suffered the misfortune of a runaway husband in her first marriage, and I can only think of Lizzie, who endured the death of her young son, a very public betrayal and divorce, and then Brenda’s own betrayal. A strong woman, for sure, and also a beautiful and well-dressed one! I wish I knew more about her.

Boston Sunday Globe: Brenda appears to have found happiness at last. She and Moncure were married until his death in 1959; she died three years later.

As cited in Felice Fischer, “Meiji Painting from the Fenollosa Collection,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 88, No. 375 (Autumn, 1992): 1-24.


4 responses to “A Little Bit More about Lizzie

  • Don Carleton

    Wow, why wasn’t the 1940s period piece/tearjerker “The Fabulous Fenollosas” ever made?! All joking aside, I still iintend to dig more into Salem’s “Malaga connection” just another example of the town’s forgotten Iberian ties….

  • Mary jane Kelley

    What a fabulous story.
    Thank you so much.

  • Brian Bixby

    American interest in Japan was quite high in the 1870s and onward, as the new Imperial Government sent out missions to understand just how Western technology and society had given those nations such power. I’ve run into traces of it at the Boutwell House in Groton, as the trade mission consulted him on banking and financial issues. (He was Secretary of the Treasury at the time.)

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