A City Of Titles
( Originally Published 1922 )
Washington, now pre-eminently the American city of titles, was almost from the beginning a city of American titles—a very different thing. This was noted, in particular, by that extremely observant and widely traveled architect, Latrobe, who wrote cheerfully, a hundred years ago, that he noticed that America was like Poland, for everybody in Poland had a title! Only, as he commented, instead of there being counts here as in Po-land, there was a crowding of captains, majors, colonels, generals. And this he found to be especially the case in Washington.
It seems incredible, but one of the books of memories of long-ago Washington—by Mrs. Gouverneur, Monroe's daughter and a White House bride—tells of a visit to Washington in the early 40's by the first James Gordon Bennett and his newly-made wife, just as there was to be a great charity ball, a social event of high order. Among the patronesses were Dolly Madison, Mrs. Tayloe and Mrs. Gouverneur herself. And when Bennett asked for tickets, the request was granted only with the definite promise on his part that he would not describe the ball in his newspaper. Two days later, however, an extended account, with names in full, appeared in the New York Herald, greatly to the indignation of the managers of the ball. For here is the difference that has come about. At that time, so Mrs. Gouverneur wrote, it was expected that a woman's name should appear in the public prints but twice: first, upon the occasion of her marriage, and second and last upon the occasion of her death.
How startled the women of those days would now be with long columns of news of society in every issue of every newspaper and with several pages on Sunday! Not only with an intense ambition on the part of society women that their names appear, but also that their portraits be given, and especially in the elaborate picture supplements.
But the women of those days, even when in their aged and declining years, were not without publicity, although it was secured in a quiet way. For instance, it was well known at the time and has been remembered ever since that when Mrs. Madison, who so objected to Bennett's method, was formally called upon by the tall and impressive General Winfield Scott in the last years of her long life, he always wore his full uniform and made a solemn function out of what might have been a simple neighborly affair.
The Scotts were both Virginians and had a home in Elizabeth, New Jersey, besides, but settled them-selves in Washington about 1850 in a house on H Street between 13th and 14th. It was one of the "Chain Houses" so-called, built by Count de Menon and had a fence bordering it made of festooned chains. In another chain house, next door, lived another wonderful old lady of old Washington—the venerable Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, and here also it was the pleasant knowledge of the Capitol, that the full uniform was worn by the superb six foot-three general when he called. It is thus that many like best to remember these venerable and distinguished old ladies, the famous widows of H Street, thus honored to the extreme. And, as to Mrs. Scott, the wife of the General, it was she who called the city a rambling, scrambling village, and was in turn facetiously known by Washingtonians as "Madame la General."
Washington has always been a city strongly influenced by Virginia ideas of chivalry. It permeates all society. For Virginians were, for a long time, the most important citizens. It is always easy to hear stories, in Washington, of Virginia military gallantry, as of General Hood, who, expecting to marry a Virginia belle, sent an order to Paris, with one item reading, "Mem.: Three cork legs and a diamond ring ! "
Of the general who defeated Hood, in the Civil War, General Thomas—not in love but at the Battle of Nashville—various pleasant stories are told, for he was a likable man who liked Washington. Pleasantest of all is that of his attitude when friends offered to present him with a house in the city. When he declined, the argument was urged upon him that a number of leading men such as Daniel Webster, had accepted homes from their admirers and friends and that even General Sher-man himelf, among military heroes, had done so. The house given to Sherman was at 203 I Street and has since been torn down, as has the house given at a later date to Admiral Dewey on Rhode Island Avenue near Connecticut.
But Thomas only replied with courteous firmness to all arguments that it made it awkward for him when put in that way, but that he could not take more than the nation had given him, which he considered quite sufficient renumeration.
In recent years Washington has not only added greatly to what may be called the more familiar American titles but has also added largely to the lists of such titles as Secretaries, Assistant-Secretaries and Commissioners, and there has been an enormous influx of title-bearing people from abroad.
With the vastly increased presence of titles has naturally come a vastly increased worship of titles: they go together.
An important and growing class in Washington is composed of extremly wealthy folk who are able and willing to spend great sums in the attempt to establish high social position here. The object of this class is not only to gain the right to mingle with the great and titled, but is often to obtain an Ambassadorship, or an important place in one of the Departments, or to serve on some important commission or to entertain a king.
No other city presents any such possibilities. These people feel that a few seasons in Washington and a large house of their own give them a stepping-stone to the very highest honors. This plan gives them vastly more than money alone could do. Such people establish their families here and, cosmopolitanly planned, mount high in worldly place; and with this there may be important double development, for this class are quite likely to retain as a bulwark their home, and their position in whatever was their home town, and at the same time they may succeed in their ambition to secure great place abroad.
Marrying their daughters to men of title or, better, to men of great foreign distinction, often follows from a basis of Washington residence. Here friendships and connections are made with people from all over the world, and if such a plan is deliberately campaigned for, with a house in London, a villa on the Riviera, or a palace in Venice, with a private yacht and the lavish entertaining that has been studied in Washington, the world is theirs. The world is mine oyster, which I with gold will open!
From these Washington mansions and seasons in Washington society, there have gone American wives for ambassadors from every country, for vice-regal place and honors; there have gone out wives for generals and admirals of highest rank in the most powerful countries of the world.
With the growing dominance of titles in this city of titles an interesting change is developing: the practical disappearances of "Mr. and Mrs." as inclusively descriptive of husband and wife.
After all, the form has not been with us for very many decades. Coming gradually in, it became a general custom: pausing a while, before general adoption, to be used to some degree as a title of gentility in Colonial and Revolutionary days, as is still to be seen on some of the gravestones of that period. But social custom long ago changed in regard to this, and neither "Mr." nor "Esq." confers to-day the distinction it was originally intended to do.
The capital of our country, which in the long run dominates social customs, has decreed, from apparent necessity, the dropping of the inclusive grouping of "Mr. and Mrs.", and this none the less inexorably that the decree has not been a matter of form but has come through changing custom. If an important man appears in the day's news he is very rarely "Mr." Every one in the city who pretends to standing or is conceded standing, makes connection with a title. There are not only the old-fashioned Senators, Representatives, Justices, Secretaries of the Cabinet; all these and such as these are still existent in greatly increased numbers, with a multiple proportion of officially entitled Assistants. And the city, and the society columns of the newspapers, and very largely the news columns, teem with the titles of myriad foreigners and with titles to some extent secured, even by Americans, from abroad: all this in addition to the titled nomenclature of the Republic.
If Doctor Syntax had added to his various famous Searches, a Search for the Odd, he would find it here in our American syntax in the growing clumsiness of expression as to man and wife.
"Mr." has practically vanished by taboo from among important men. In Washington a man may be President or Assistant Secretary: he may be General or Lieutenant. But he is something of title and is referred to with the title. The news-paper columns daily bristle with titles.
Even the children can tell a captain from a major by the number of stripes of black braid that en-twine themselves on his overcoat sleeve. The Washington eye is trained to read the insignia upon collar and sleeve. The title goes with the clothes. No mistakes are made.
In the face of the onslaught of titles the modest united "Mr. and Mrs." is rarely to be seen. But the severed "Mrs." remains and a great awkwardness of expression appears in consequence.
There can be no objection to such phrases as "the President and Mrs. Harding," "the Secretary of State and Mrs. Hughes, or Mrs. Blaine or Mrs. Hay," or "the Ambassador from Great Britan and Lady Geddes," for it is a matter of general intelligence that these names are associated with the offices held. The names of Harding and Hughes and Geddes are known. But it is an absurdity that any important part of the public can know the name of, say, the Third Assistant Secretary of State, or that of the Minister from such Graustark or Zenda countries as Bulgaria or Czecko-Slovakia. But in the usages of ordinary publicity such as that of the newspapers there is, to-day, nothing to associate coupled names as husbands and wives.
From one single page, this is excerpt: "The Third Secretary of the Italian Embassy and Mme. Celesia. The Peruvian Ambassador and Mme. Pezet. The Military Attache of the French Embassy and Mme. Collardet. The Norwegian Minister and Mme. Bryn. The Charge d'affaires of Great Britain and Mrs. Craigie. The Roumanian Minister and Princess Bibesco. The Third Assist-ant Secretary of State and Mrs. Smith. The Assist-ant to the Attorney General and Mrs. Austin. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Mrs. Woodbury"—that dine together or receive together or go to Atlantic City or Palm Beach together.
Isn't there something wrong with our clever nation? Are all these people plain husbands and wives? "The Minister of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and Mme. Gronitch, "—this sounds positively polyandrous ! "The Former Ambassador to France (sufficiently indefinite!) and Mrs. Wallace will sail for Paris together."
And there will shortly appear new complications, for women are about to secure a large number of titled offices; and newspapers will begin to tell that, "The Congresswoman from—oh, New York, Pennsylvania, California, any State—and Mr. Jones left yesterday for New York."
That in practice there is seldom actual misunderstanding is not enough. It is a clumsy form, and as titles and the use of titles increase, the reason for a more efficient form increases. One wonders where the end will be; what heights will be reached, what depths will be plumbed, before some clear-minded system shall be adopted. One can see how the French at one time acted upon the necessity of Citoyen and Citoyenne, one form for all.
A most striking example of worship of titles in Washington was shown at a reception given by David Jayne Hill; so prominent in Grover Cleve-land's time. There were numerous notables among the guests. Hill himself led the procession into the dining-room with a Countess Thyrzo. (This is an exeprience that Saint Gaudens loved to tell). It was a time of intense feeling for democracy and therefore, by natural contradiction, the worship of titles was intense.
Never did two people walk together more proudly. In fact it was not to be denominated a walk but a progress. Two by two, like the formal entry into the ark, the entire gathering were to go. Hill looked straight in front of him, evidencing a pride such as had come to few' Americans. The Countess, richly gowned, went proudly on, filled with a sense of distinction of leading the way at a dinner at which Cardinal Gibbons was the principal guest. The order of proceeding had been arranged with the most meticulous care; which couple should go second, which couple third, and most heedfully on to the end, which was to be brought up by the red-robed cardinal leading the wife of the host.
Neither Hill nor the countess noticed that any-thing was going wrong. There was no one at either side to smile in warning. All had been lined up for the progress into the dining-room. But when Hill and the Countess reached the head of the table and turned, prepared for the entire company to be settling into their seats with them, they were appalled to see that not a soul had moved in following! Not one had dared to walk out in front of the ecclesiastical gorgeousness. All were busily bowing and bowing and waiting and waiting for the Cardinal and Mrs. Hill to precede them !
There has long been a considerable feeling to the effect that there is in Washington a settled society superior to that headed by the Administration. These supposed social leaders have been known as "settled" or "permanent" society and others have known them as "antiques"—Mark Twain's name—and still others have called them "cave-dwellers."
There is certainly a society of this kind, a sort of social alluvial soil, a rich deposit of time, from Colonial days, from high office, from heroes of wars and long-established wealth.
That descendants of old families appear prominently from time to time is undoubtedly the case, part of this class being life-long dwellers in Washington and part guests or relatives from other cities. I quote from a newspaper account of a Colonial ball at the Willard—not a gathering of the greatest names but of many names of the great, and showing the sources of settled society in the city. There was a Gorges, direct descendant of the English pioneer in Maine; there was a descendant of the famous Sir James Johnson, so powerful in central New York; there was the great-great-grandaughter of William Vernon of Rhode Island, president of the Continental Navy Board; there was William Fendall, a Washingtonian directly descended from the crown-governor Fendall of Maryland; there was Mrs. John C. Fremont, wearing the gown worn by her four-degree grandmother at a Patroon's ball in Albany, a hundred and sixty years ago. One man represented his great-great grandfather Thomas Lee, a member of the Continental Congress from Mary-land, and his wife was descended from the officer next in command to Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga. There were descendants of Robert Livingston, of Richard Keene, in colonial times Lord of the Manor on the Patuxent; there was a descendant of the colonial Cabells, and a Lee of Virginia. But even here, as a piece de resistance there was General Pershing, with Missouri and Nebraska as his background.
But always, in spite of the interesting character of many who gather here, the society led by the White House, the Cabinet and the Senate and the Embassies always dominates in the social life of the city—for they hold the golden cornucopia from which flows appointments and salaries, money and place.
Even long ago, the old-timers did not socially dominate, for the novel "Through one Administration," written out of an observant knowledge of the city and apparently describing the time of Hayes, constantly pictures the power of public officials when exerted in social control, at the same time that there was a social life of residents not connected with officialdom. When there comes in the novel a great contest, the woman of the "settled" society, who thinks she is leader, finds herself swept off her feet and lost before the unexpected entry into the social fray of a United States Senator and the wife of the Secretary .of the Interior !—although people in these positions would not find themselves particularly important in other great cities.
Such high and varied social triumphs may come to the man equipped with a large Washington house and a large fortune that the statement in regard to the entertainment of kings is not in the least an exaggeration. The master .of a mining fortune, a Copper King, went to Europe, and through business affairs came in close relations with Leopold, the Congo-entangled King of the Belgians. That Belgian king had few friends, whether among royalty or civilians; his reputation had kept friends away and so the Copper King found little difficulty in making and pressing an acquaintance with him.
The Belgian King spoke of coming to America and said that if he should, he would visit this Washingtonian.
So home the copper man came and, so the story has it, and it is too delightful a story to pry into too closely, he lavished every possible expenditure in outfitting, decorating and furnishing his Massachusetts Avenue home, most marked of all being the putting in place of a gold bathtub, ready for the kingly form!
But Leopold died without coming, and the Copper King did as the Belgian king, and died. And in the course of time the Great War opened and the new Belgian King, Albert, came to America with Queen Elizabeth.
The Vice-President of the United States wanted to entertain the Belgian royalties at dinner.
The finest residence in Washington, which was of a quality distinctly beyond that of the copper man, was offered and accepted; but the offer was with-drawn because enough servants were not available, in war time, properly to equip the house. Then, so the story goes, the literal golden opportunity came —Royalty came to the house so long ago set in order for old Leopold! The Vice-President borrowed the Copper King's house from the widow. So Belgian royalty saw at last the lavishness of that preparation that had been made for Leopold! Royalty at length ate from the gold service even if it was rather in the nature of funeral-baked meats! The kings were dead, Copper and Belgian alike. Long live the King! as they used to say.
It is curious that while America has been so in-creasing in titles, England has been decreasing in this respect. The English peerage is threatening to become a disapeerage. And as to Continental Europe there have been such disappearances and changes that there are no royalties for English princesses to marry. Of the so recently interminable list of ruling emperors, czars, princes and potenates who ruled in central Europe, Johann of Liechtenstein alone remains as ruler and he still holds his tiny principality, a romantic place, only because he collects no tax and has no army !
One strong reason why titles in Washington rap-idly fill the atmosphere is that the city is not large and that many of the people of title frequently shift their homes. Take for example the house of Senator Hanna, with its great drawing-rooms, its great fireplace of clear blocks of onyx, its French windows looking out over Lafayette Square—this house, built by a son of the Tayloe of five hundred slaves, was occupied by such titled folks as Admiral Paulding, Vice-President Hobart, and the Duchess of Marlborough in her early years. A still more striking example was that of the house next door, which used to look down into the same walled garden, but is now replaced by the Belasco Theatre, for this house was built by Commodore Rodgers, and among the names associated with it were Ex-president John Adams, Senator Calhoun, Senator Henry Clay, General Sickles, who killed Key at the door, Secretary Seward, who was well-nigh murdered upstairs, on the night of the killing of Lincoln, and Secretary of State Blaine—who, after choosing a number of homes in Washington, found this a place in which to end his days.
The gentle winter climate of Washington is undoubtedly a factor in increasing the settling in of many families from colder sections of the country.
A certain number of the class who come to build and to entertain, seem not to succeed in their ulterior ends. And perhaps there is always a pro-portion who do not have those ends, although the Washington public opinion always ascribes such motives to them.
The curious plan of the thoroughfares gives the city an enormous number of wedge-shaped proper-ties and wedge-shaped houses. The Octagon was the earliest of this form of building, and perhaps the most marked is an apartment house on Connecticut Avenue, south of Dupont Circle, whose flat-iron rooms are so narrow as just to hold a chair at the end. Perry Belmont came quietly over from New York and built a palace on a street-bound wedge of land on New Hampshire Avenue and Eighteenth and R Streets. When the great war began, Belmont offered the use of this house to the Japanese, feeling justified in this because his ancestor, Mat-thew Perry, had made the first voyage that opened the ports of Japan to Americans. The city smiled at this, and called his house, "The opening wedge."
As Mark Twain found Naples infested with counts, he would now find Washington infested with lords and ladies and titled gentry of all degrees. The Japanese, ever quick to imitate, excel in titles : princes, barons, counts—they have adopted all the fendal titles of European civilization and have added some of their own. And that nation has been of great influence in driving out our good old forms.
Changes have been coming gradually and unnoticed. Mrs. Burnett, knowing Washington intimately, seeing everything with her observant eyes, wrote of the city as it was half a century ago, that society was then led by bewildered Europeans and astonished Americans—Americans astonished to find themselves suddenly facing the responsibility of the high-titled positions, and Europeans bewildered by having to adjust themselves to unexpected novelties in democratic manners and customs.
The great game in Washington is society. The great game is to land all the titles they possibly can at their dinner tables, with the especial ambition of seeing the names in the next day's newspaper.
Even better, on one day the papers will say "So and so will entertain"; then the tufted lion list will follow and next day "So and so entertained" the tufted lion list, last night at dinner! Thus twice the titled guests are made to walk before the public eye.
A frequent visitor of distinction who loved Washington and Washingtonians even though at times he also loved to laugh a little at them, told, among other tales, of napkins of pink silk at an important dinner : "quite impossible for a beard ! "—he him-self having a French one. And he liked to tell of another dinner at which in the center of the table was a bowl of gold fish—with no one listening to the after-dinner speakers, because of watching a strangling and dying fish.
An important feature, not for a moment to be forgotten, is that like the distinguished visitor just referred to, visitors find Washingtonians a delightful class. This is mainly because they are Americans in an American city; almost the only foreigners such as are here, being those who are here on official errands, and the Chinese colony that makes for a short distance a little Chinatown of one side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and a colony of about the same size, consisting oddly of Greeks who devote themselves to shoe-polishing, and patient celery-vending from baskets on the sidewalks.
That there are no manufacturing interests to occupy conversational attention and that the amount of mercantile interests is comparatively small are powerful abetting reasons for the intense devotion to matters social. The typical interests such as those of other cities are not here. People have no vote. It is an amazing fact! The residents of the capital of this great Republic have no voice in public affairs. Property holders do not have responsibility for the taxes sufficient for their own city. Even the petty matters, like the large ones, which would be decided by duly elected town councils in other American cities, are settled by a "Town Council" of hundreds of men elected in every corner of the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific—except the District of Columbia !
And for what Congress does not care to decide, everything is managed by a board of three appointed commissioners, one of then an army officer.
So naturally the citizens turn with even far more than natural zest to the adulatory gossip of society, and the mulling of honors and titles and rights of precedence.
There is much of truth in the cynical saying that society folk lunch in one house, dine in another, dance in several houses in an evening and are never at home except on their own reception days.
So many come to Washington for Congressional or appointive terms, that they enter with tremendous zest into social affairs. The streets are filled with their motors in the afternoon with occupants coifed and attired for .one "at home" after another. You come very soon to know the names of the principal social addicts. Society life in Washington gives them no eight hour days !
In a particular of picturesque possibilities this city of devotion to titles loses an opportunity. For the meridional street, the wide street leading north-ward from opposite the center of the White House into the hills far north of the city—a street with many a famous home and with semi-public palaces of great foundations, and with churches and temples —has a beautiful name bestowed upon it, which has failed to attach itself.
Recently, to give this splendid thoroughfare a distinction which it deserved but which its numeral name, Sixteenth, did not give, it was officially designated "The Avenue of the Presidents," with no feeling of doubt that the public would accept the name eagerly. How the French would have jumped at such a distinction !—they with their Champs Elysees and their Avenue de la Grande Armee and their Rue Royale !
But this official renaming struck few responsive chords in Washington. In time "The Avenue of the Presidents" may be accepted, but never proudly. "Sixteenth" clings, like a burr.