62 Washington Square South, New York, New York

What is the definition of someone with no life? – a person who blogs about someone else’s life.                                                                                                                -the author

In New York City, a must-see for an “Allerton nut” (like me) is Washington Square in the heart of Greenwich Village. Ellen Emmet resided at 62 Washington Square South. According to John Gregg, Ellen Emmet (later Ellen Emmet Rand) was Robert Allerton’s fiancée who broke his poor father’s heart.

Ellen Emmet Rand was a well-known portrait painter; she painted portraits of President Franklin Roosevelt and wife, Eleanor. Three portraits attributed to Ellen Emmet still hang in the Allerton mansion. (Robert’s portrait is inserted here). Robert and Ellen apparently met in Paris where they were both studying art.

While it is true that Robert was romantically linked with Ellen Emmet, and this ‘romance’ was hot and heavy from 1905-1907, it is unknown when the two hooked up in the US. John Gregg reported that the two were officially engaged and that Robert read in the newspaper about Ellen’s marriage in May, 1911, to Blanchard Rand. While the latter is probably true, Ellen’s official engagement to Blanchard was reported in the NY Times in January, 1911. It really is inconceivable that someone as well connected as Robert in social circles and whose goings and comings were detailed in the Chicago society pages would be oblivious to news about his long-time girlfriend. Robert would have had to have had his head in the sand or where ever to NOT have known.

Outside of John Gregg’s accounts of the Ellen Emmet heartbreak, insight into the Allerton-Emmet romance comes from correspondence in the Smithsonian Emmet Archives and from Henry James published archives. I will explore this unrequited romance at another time.

Ellen Emmet lived at Washington Square, New York City from 1902 until at least 1909. Beginning in 1902, Ellen had a fourth floor apartment and a ground floor studio at 62 Washington Square South. The Sunday, January 19, 1908, NY Times society column headlined with “Costume Carnival in Artist’s Studio.” Ellen’s “old-fashioned house was given over to the revelers, and, on the top floor, the spacious studio, lighted with wax candles, was the mecca of the gay throng….John Alsop, who resembles Clyde Fitch, was dressed as a Morrocan sheik”. More than 150 people attended this bohemian costume carnival. Jane de Glehn’s mother wrote to her daughter that John Alsop loaned the Duchesse of Switzerland one of his oriental dresses. The duchesse also borrowed a cloak belonging to Ellen. The duchesse then refused to return the borrowed items stating (via the maid) that she wanted to take the items back to England. Ellen did get her cloak back. The spunky Ellen Emmet “chewed up the British aristocracy and spit them out for good.”

A 1909 NY Times Real Estate article listed Ellen Emmet and John Alsop as tenants of a Cooperative house at this same address. Perhaps they moved from renter to owners. John Alsop is one of Ellen’s frequent companions in the years prior to her 1911 marriage to Blanchard Rand. One of Ellen and Blanchard’s son was named John Alsop Rand.

Having seen Washington Square on BRAVO, I had romantic notions of finding Ellen’s brick, brownstone building intact. From the description in the 1908 NY Times, Ellen’s building was evidently the classic four story brownstone. Today, however, in its place is the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life for New York University. In 1947 and 1948, six Washington Square South buildings were purchased by NY University. The residents of the buildings were evicted. A lawsuit and trial followed the evictions. Public appeal to preserve the historic character of Washington Square failed to block the march of progress.

On this particular March, Saturday afternoon, Washington Square was abuzz with activity. The weather was clear; the sun shining. People congregated in groups around the square or relaxed on benches lining the walks. A performing dancer/rapper group entertained a large crowd in the Park center court.

Washington Square is dominated by the Washington Arch designed by Stanford White. The area was developed by the White family. Stanford was the architect and developer of the original Madison Square Garden. Stanford topped Madison Square Gardens with the controversial Augustus Saint-Gaudens gilded bronze, Diana. Public outcry against the scandalous naked female figure rang out in editorials in the NY Times. The original Madison Square Gardens was razed.  Diana holds court in the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art. The present Madison Square Gardens is located several blocks to the northwest of the original site.

Stanford White and Ellen Emmet were linked by marriage. Ellen’s uncle was married to Stanford White’s wife’s sister. However remote this connection may appear now – 100 years later – in the social structure of the time, any connection might provide an opportunity toward social mobility in a relatively closed society. Through Ellen Emmet, Robert Allerton gained many opportunities in society. Of course, his money didn’t hurt. But money alone was not an open ticket to a higher social circle. Connections were everything; certainly, Robert Allerton appreciated the benefits of these new connections to the New York City and London crowds through Ellen Emmet. The social hierarchy and social mobility of the early 1900’s provides fascinating study.

In June, 1906, Stanford White was murdered at his rooftop restaurant by Harry Thaw. You can find much information about the murder and Thaw trial and the testimony given by his widow, Evelyn Nesbit, at the trial. This testimony provided many details about Stanford’s womanizing at his Madison Garden penthouse apartment.  Many observations about Stanford White and his widow, Bessie, appear in letters in the Smithsonian Emmet Archives. Ellen Emmet evidently had a close relationship with Stanford. Robert Allerton also developed a friendship with Stanford’s wife. There is debate as to whether Bessie was still visiting Robert Allerton at the time when Stanford was murdered. I will discuss this question and share my conclusions in a later post.

As for 62 Washington Square, it only exists in my imagination. Ellen’s building is no more. My visit to Washington Square satisfied my curiosity. A lovely meal at a nearby Village restaurant on Downing Street capped off this NYC afternoon. The beer and wine manager at the restaurant formerly worked at a downtown Champaign restaurant. Imagine his surprise when some Champaign peeps entered the restaurant.

As with most of my trips, exploring an Allerton connection is seldom far removed. New York City was no exception.

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