Before their Washington Gardens: Americans in Paris

Even before her marriage to the diplomat Ronald Lindsay, Elizabeth Hoyt occupied the same worldly and cultivated social spheres as her close friends and future neighbors in Washington, Robert and Mildred Bliss of Dumbarton Oaks. Along with Hoyt’s aunt Elizabeth Cameron and the historian Henry Adams, they were bound by friendships formed in Paris and as part of Edith Wharton’s orbit in France.

Edith Wharton (ink drawing, ca. 1900 (Archives of American Art)

Edith Wharton (ink drawing, ca. 1900, Archives of American Art)

Lindsay, not one easily daunted, was initially intimidated by Wharton, but she came to appreciate and admire the novelist greatly for her resourcefulness and loyalty to Cameron. All were in Paris in the lead-up to and during the World War; Ronald Lindsay was stationed in Cairo. Robert Bliss had been posted to the American Embassy in Paris in 1912 and Mildred Bliss served as vice-president of the Comité Franco-Américain pour la Protection des Enfants de la Frontière. After the United States entered the war, the Comité worked with the American Red Cross, where Hoyt was an official. Mrs. Bliss came to serve as chairman of the Red Cross’s Woman’s War Relief Corps in France.

American Red Cross in Paris, ca. 1914-15. Bain News Service (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

American Red Cross in Paris, ca. 1914-15. Bain News Service (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

It was during these pre-war years in Paris that Wharton and Adams also developed their friendship (although they had long known of each other), intellectual and sardonic sparing partners in the expatriate community there.¹ While Cameron was on one of her frequent long wanderings, Adams would set himself up in her Parisian home, at 50 rue du Bois de Boulogne. But his base was in Washington, at 1602 H Street, close by to where Cameron had her famous salon in earlier days before the disintegration of her unhappy marriage to Senator Donald Cameron. Their neighbor John Hay had called Cameron “the most beautiful woman in all of Washington” while her husband, who had been a widower with six, resentful children, was primarily interested in politics and poker. As the marriage failed, Cameron went into self-imposed exile in Europe, and volunteered with fundraising when she was in Paris, particularly for Wharton’s Le Foyer aux Réfugés.

Despite having long predicted the war’s cataclysmic events, Adams found himself stranded, in his own words “trapped like an octogenarian rat,” first at a lent château, Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse, and then in Paris as German troops advanced in the northwest. There were no newspapers and reports were conflicting; it was Robert Bliss who helped keep the writer informed and to see to his eventual safe passage to Cameron’s Stepleton House in the English countryside. From there, Adams reported to Ronald Lindsay in Cairo, “It was an escape from what verged on Hell, and no slouch of a bad one. We got out of Paris just in time, and Stepleton was Paradise.”²

Stepleton House, Dorset (photo courtesy of geographic-org-uk)

Stepleton House, Dorset (photo courtesy of geographic-org-uk)

The Lindsays were married at Stepleton in 1924, and after a brief honeymoon in the Dorset country side, they settled in Constantinople, where Sir Ronald had been appointed ambassador. Positions in Berlin and London followed, culminating with the Washington ambassadorship. The Blisses, meanwhile, were in Sweden, and then from in 1927 in Argentina, where Robert Bliss achieved the rank of ambassador. It is from this period that the Bliss correspondence in the Harvard University Archives reveals an intimate relationship between both couples.

Chapel at Stepleton House (photo courtersy of DeadFred.com, Joe Bott)

Chapel at Stepleton House (photo courtesy of DeadFred.com, Joe Bott)

For example, in 1924, Elizabeth Lindsay wrote: “You dears. What fun it would have been to have had you at our wedding. No words can tell you how touched we were at your even thinking of it. Here we fulfilled our threats & pulled it off last Monday morning, with only Dilly [Elizabeth Cameron], Peter the dog & the gardener as witnesses.” She then goes on about wanting to go to Sweden to visit the Blisses but can’t manage that year, suggesting they try and meet in Paris. (18 July 1924)

Ronald Lindsay, drawing by Samuel Johnson Woolf, ca. 1930 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Ronald Lindsay, drawing by Samuel Johnson Woolf, ca. 1930 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Ronald Lindsay soon followed up with a personal missive to Mildred (as he addressed her). “But after all, there is more in the friendship between you and me than can be justified by its mere intrinsic character and we have long known all about each other through persons equally dear to each of us. I think that at my time of life I have more pleasure in redoubling old ties of friendship than in contracting new ones.”(21 July 1924).

Chapel at Stepleton House (photo courtesy od DeadFred.com, Joe Bott)

Chapel at Stepleton House (photo courtesy of DeadFred.com, Joe Bott)

Following the posting in Constantinople, the Lindsays moved to Germany in 1926. The Blisses’ Parisian apartment provided a refuge for Lady Lindsay. She wrote about winter in Berlin: “… I am so often reminded of Trix’s & my greeting to each other on these same sort of winter days in New York. With a grinding of jaws & a shivering of spines & an angry eye, we would say ‘what lovely bracing weather, isn’t it?’. On the ‘isn’t’ you must wrinkle the nose – otherwise there is no meaning.” (29 December 1929). She reported from Berlin that she had taken her own apartment in Paris on a ten-year lease in the “Restaurant Tour d’Argent Building.” (undated letter)

For the Blisses, there were of course trips back to Washington to, checking on the Georgetown estate where they planned to retire. Lindsay was eager to learn more about the place: “Bless you for your letter Mildred dear. You are a loyal friend if ever there was one, and never fail to stretch forth a helping hand – Do let me know about the Oaks (& whether it is the Oaks) – and if possible send me photographs” (8 October 1924). From Eaton Square, Lindsay wrote to Mildred Bliss in Washington: “And how is the B.O.? [Beautiful One was her nickname for Robert] … How is my beloved Trix? [Farrand]. If you see her HUG her for me. I can think of nothing happier than to be able to see you both at once.”

Dumbarton Oaks by the photographer Theodor Horydczak (undated, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Dumbarton Oaks by the photographer Theodor Horydczak (undated, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

"The Beautiful One" Robert Woods Bliss 21 October 1924 (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

“The Beautiful One”. Robert Woods Bliss, 21 October 1924 (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

Lady Lindsay, in a little more than a year’s time, would find herself living almost next door to the Blisses’ famous estate, and where her good friend and former colleague Beatrix Farrand was still working on the Dumbarton Oaks gardens.

Notes

¹ Lewis, R.W.B. Edith Wharton: a biography (New York: Fromm International, 1985), p. 224-6.

² Ford, Worthington Chauncey, ed. Letters of Henry Adams (1892-1918). Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1938, p. 627.

Sir Ronald had previously served twice in Washington: from 1905 to 1907 as Second Secretary under Sir Henry M. Durand, from 1920 to 1921 as Counselor of the Embassy under Viscount Grey of Fallodon and Sir Auckland Geddes. He was the fifth son of the Earl of Crawford.

Frontispiece of The Letters of Elizabeth Sherman Lindsay, showing the jade figures given her by the Blisses.

Frontispiece of The Letters of Elizabeth Sherman Lindsay, showing the jade figures given her by the Blisses.

Quoted correspondence from The Papers of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. Harvard University Archives HUGFP 76.

Henry Adams House, Lafayette Square, photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1900?, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Henry Adams House, Lafayette Square, photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1900?, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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2 comments

  1. Excellent article. While reseaching Henry Adams I paid a short visit to Stepleton House. I was rewarded with being able to see both Dilly’s and Martha’s graves .

    1. A History of The Gardens of the Ambassador's Residence, British Embassy, Washington · · Reply

      How wonderful. I recognize your name from doing my own research. I need to get back to the Lady Lindsay soon.

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