Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry continues her series profiling descendants of the Mayflower settlers, focusing on a dispute that broke out at an aristocratic luncheon when a grande dame insulted the women of the Mayflower. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.
In 1922 a reported cat fight broke out at the Wednesday Club women’s group hosted by Mrs. Schulyer Warren in New York. The topic for the meetup luncheon was: “Is the girl of today more advanced than her mother?” A casual whisper of the Pilgrim ladies of Plymouth prompted Mrs. J. K. Van Rensselaer, aka “Tyrannical Empress of America,” to declare: “Mayflower ladies were washerwomen and cooks, and they ate their food with their fingers!”
Well, that did not go over well, and many manners went amiss. The tempers flared and the claws came out. “The assemblance became a howling mob” and society dames made headlines.
First, let me introduce two key players:
Mrs. J. K. Van Rensselaer: Marie “May” Denning King, wife of wealthy banker J. K. Van Rensselaer, and daughter of Archibald Gracie King and Elizabeth Denning Duer. She was the Knickerbocker leader and cream of New York’s “400.” She considered herself the dowager of a Great Clan and social dictator of the city. A Mayflower descendant of five passengers, she was the gr. great granddaughter of William Alexander, aka Lord Stirling – George Washington’s noble general. Her granddaughter Sylvia Grinnell Van Rensselaer was one of the modern debs that inspired the luncheon topic. She was making good in real business at a bank.
Mrs. Harold Villard: Helen Francis “Fanny” Garrison, widow of railroad tycoon Harold Villard, and daughter of noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and Helen Eliza Benson. She was a devoted social activist, member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, founder of the Women’s Peace Society, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
According to reports from the San Diego Union, the fact that Mrs. J. K. Van Rensselaer was herself a Mayflower descendant did not soothe the feelings of the club’s ladies.
As this article reported:
Speaking historical fact about the Pilgrim Fathers in the presence of the aristocratic Wednesday Club of New York is distinctly an impious and a ghoulish act. Wednesday Clubbers are not bone rattlers, they’ll have you know.
Apparently this did not occur to Mrs. J. K. Van Rensselaer, or at least it did not deter her. For at a recent meeting of that aristocratic group of New York women she declared with a palpable sniff that the Mayflower ladies were for the most part washerwomen and cooks.
That Mrs. Van Rensselaer was herself a Mayflower descendant didn’t in the least save the feelings of the other club ladies. They were outraged. And they expressed this emotion as outraged ladies are wont to do regardless of creed, color or condition. “In a moment,” according to one report, “the assemblage became a howling mob.”
…According to reliable reports fifteen minutes of acrimony passed before the chairman, Mrs. Trowbridge, could restore order. And even then the members were so exercised that they were unable to debate further on abstract and literary subjects, the raison d’etre of the club and its meetings, and the session was adjourned.
This was not the only squabble Mrs. Van Rensselaer instigated when the topic of Mayflower lineage was discussed – many Mayflower descendants were scorched by Van Rensselaer’s debasing remarks. I found an article in the Tampa Tribune that noted she was not shy in voicing her opinion of the Mayflower men, just as she had earlier criticized the women:
At the Wednesday Club luncheon when Van Rensselaer called the Pilgrim ladies sloth servers and bottle washers, Mrs. Villard declared Mrs. Van Rensselaer was talking through her hat and the Pilgrims were all noble and aristocratic.
According to the San Diego Union report, Mrs. Van Rensselaer told the group:
“Well, what do you suppose the passengers on the Mayflower did? Do you think they brought along the Queen of Sheba to cook for them and Joan of Arc to make their frys?”
Van Rensselaer later told the press:
“I have my own opinions about the blue-blooded Mayflower ladies. But I wouldn’t for the world destroy the dream world these prominent ladies have made out of their Mayflower origin. It would be too shocking to them to find out that their esteemed ancestors not only made their own beds, washed their own dishes, and did their own cooking, but also ate with their fingers, for knives and forks were not then in common use.”
What bubbled into a “volcanic intensity” at Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s remarks did ignite an intense interest for these women clubbers to study early American history. Many consulted with Edmund Carpenter’s book The Mayflower Pilgrims.
While Carpenter would have agreed with Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s assessment of the humble origin of the Mayflower passengers, there are a few facts that favor the club’s proud Pilgrim descendants and would help to put the society tyrant back in her box! Stay tuned for more.
(Thanks to Elizabeth Needham for help with genealogy research for this article.)
Note on the header image: “John Alden and Priscilla Wedded,” McLoughlin Bros., 1903, hanging in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. Courtesy of Tim Evanson.