John Bigelow, Gentleman
( Originally Published 1921 )
Mrs. J. F. A. Clarke
At Highland Falls, a mile or two below West Point, the traveller along the Hudson may see the charming old house of that distinguished American states-man, the late Hon. John Bigelow, set high on the cliffs above the river amidst the foliage and blossom of its beautiful old-fashioned gardens. It is a low white house of Colonial style, with green shutters and ample porches, sweet in Spring and Summer with wisteria and honeysuckle vines. The white, cool rooms furnished with old mahogany and chintz and many rare engravings and books have a charm which is equaled by the garden and orchard outside where prim rows of daffodils and tulips bloom beneath the peach and apple blossoms, giving way later to the rose and stock and heliotrope of the old-fashioned garden.
The wonderful spirit that was the life of the place is gone, and yet the old house still evokes undying memories of a beautiful life, a noble mind and distinguished achievements such as few Americans have surpassed and seldom equaled. The world every-where knows of John Bigelow as statesman, diplomatist, scholar, thinker, writer and publicist ; and his distinguished public career, notably as American Ambassador to France under Lincoln, when during the Civil War he discovered and frustrated the plot of the French Government to supply ships to the Con-federate Navy; and also his many useful achievements in other public offices. But what the world at large cannot know is that the beauty of his private life and character was more notable and valuable to the community in which he lived and to his family and host of friends than any public work performed by him. His extraordinary charm of manner was well known in society and public life, but only his intimates knew that he carried this same chivalry and kindness into his private life. His family, his servants, every one who came into close contact with him found that same kindly courtesy, and gentleness of manner, and an unfailing sympathy and geniality which made everyone love him. This gift of making himself loved was perhaps the foremost characteristic of John Bigelow's life, and the secret of it was that his charm and his exquisite manners sprang from the heart and were the result of his beneficent attitude to his fellow-men. He was a perfect exponent of the motto "noblesse oblige" in that he combined the highest breeding and aristocracy with a truly democratic consideration for everyone alike, high or low, great or humble. He once said to the writer : "A gentleman has but one manner of speaking to a king or a peasant, that of courtesy. A man cannot be more than polite and he owes politeness to everyone." He had a kindly tolerance for the faults and weaknesses of others and, while severe with him-self, he was slow to judge others and full of understanding for all human problems. He never condemned others on hearsay or allowed himself to be prejudiced against any one in advance. He would meet them and judge for himself, and his attitude of friendliness toward all who sought him out was apt to make charming people expand into their best moods, and even the most crusty and unprepossessing appeared at their best and melted at once at his kindly smiles and friendly voice and words. Of a noble and singularly upright mind himself, he instinctively looked for good in others, and it was extraordinary how often he found it, and how seldom people showed the baser side of their nature to him. He created an atmosphere of active, positive good about him wherever he went. A well-known business man who used to go often to visit John Bigelow and talk with him in his charming old home on Gramercy Park, used to say: "When I am in the presence of Mr. Bigelow, I feel that there is nothing but goodness in the world ;" and indeed his marvelous personality wove a spell of peace and tranquility over all those who were with him and gave them a sense of happiness for the time being. Many great and distinguished men sought his company, for he was a man of rare wisdom, a brilliant scholar and conversationalist, and of wide experience. Sooner or later everyone of importance in the world of diplomacy, statecraft, law, finance, philosophy and the arts, as well as in society, found their way to the house in Gramercy Park or to the charming old country place "The Squirrels" at Highland. Falls. On a single after-noon in Mr. Bigelow's drawing room one used to encounter such different personalities as the late Mr. J. Pierpont Morgan, the Hon. Joseph Choate, and Cardinal Farley, as well as some distinguished writer of the day and the latest visiting celebrity from Europe. Lovely and charming women and young girls always abounded at Mr. Bigelow's receptions and soirees, which he and his eldest daughter, Miss Grace Bigelow, frequently gave at the town house. He was always a chivalrous and ardent admirer of the fair sex and had respect for the intellect and judgment of women and belief in their goodness. He was one of the earliest advocates of woman suffrage in America when that cause was still most unpopular. His attitude towards women endeared him to them, and in his extreme old age it was beautiful to see the attention and devotion shown him by the ladies he had known when they were tiny girls, and who now brought their young daughters to be presented to him on his days at home. Mr. Bigelow, however, was equally charming and complimentary to the feminine members of his own family circle: "My dear, how charming you look," he would say to a daughter or granddaughter. "What a becoming hat, what a pretty gown. I shall feel very proud to be seen driving with such a sweet young lady." Again he would encourage and enjoy any talents displayed by his family, often saving little poems and drawings and letters sent him by his grandchildren for years and years and interesting himself without stint in their efforts and achievements. In the days when his wife was yet alive, Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow conducted the most distinguished salon in New York—perhaps the last of those gatherings of society interspersed with artistic, musical and literary celebrities, which were so charming a feature of a bygone era. These salons were replaced in Mr. Bigelow's later life by the remarkable and delightful annual receptions which he gave each winter on his birthday and continued till the year of his death. On that day he kept open house and all were welcome. Here the most fashionable and distinguished people mingled with some of the most simple and humble folks who passed through the reception rooms to say many happy returns to the Grand Old Man of America, as he was so often called. He would stand for two hours or more, tall and erect, with his white hair and a radiant smile on his handsome and noble face, giving to each one who passed a warm handclasp and the appropriate welcoming words that gladden the heart of a guest. A very distinguished man once said to the writer on one of these occasions, "There stands John Bigelow, the first gentleman of America. He is the essence of distinction;" and indeed his perfect manners were a form of greatness in themselves. The writer remembers Mr. Bigelow at Highland Falls one hot summer day just before his ninetieth birthday when in spite of his great age he was still vigorous in mind, though some-what weary in body. An elderly man dressed in dusty black was seen walking towards the house, up the driveway, evidently a simple man of the people. We urged Mr. Bigelow to go indoors and avoid his visitor as he was tired after the long hot day, but he refused to do so, saying, "If he has taken the trouble to come and see me, I can take the trouble to see him," and he advanced to meet the unknown guest, removing his hat and holding out his hand, which was grasped by the somewhat grimy one of the delighted stranger, who remarked, "Well, Mr. Bigelow, I heard a lot about you and I thought I would come and see you for myself. I've come all the way from B and I'm glad to find you home." I can see Mr. Bigelow now with his winning smile, leading his guest into the house and sending for refreshments and I re-member that he talked for several hours and listened to the political opinions and hopes and fears and life history of his visitor, who departed happily at twilight. Mr. Bigelow always had time for those who sought him and was generous to a fault, forgiving and warm-hearted. His friends were countless in all countries and all classes and those who knew him best loved him most.
He was an intensely spiritual man, almost a mystic in his exalted religious life and belief, although he never thrust his conviotions before others, nor preached nor offered advice unless it were asked for. He was unusually tolerant and sympathetic towards the convictions of others. For this very reason many came to him for advice and council and spiritual guidance. Many a man of great affairs has found rest and spiritual refreshment in that quiet library beside the wise and big-hearted man who sat there among his books and was ready to give of the peace and light in his own soul to those who needed it. Many found inspiration from him and were better because he lived among them. He stood for health of body as well as health of soul, and the almost austere habits of life he practised himself helped to maintain to keep him strong during a vigorous old age. But here again he did not insist on the same regime for his family. He had not even a grain of the tyrant in his nature; love and tenderness were uppermost in his nature, mingled with courage and vigor. He wished to persuade and lead others, not to dominate or force; there lay his power. As founder and president of the Century Club he displayed his powers of leadership and the compelling charm of high breeding and remarkable and winning personality. His fellow-members called him "The First Gentleman of America"—New York called him her "First Citizen." America knew him as one of her most ardently patriotic sons. To society he was the very cream of aristocracy—to the people he was ideally democratic in his work and care for the public good. When he died at the age of ninety-four, Hamilton Wright Mabie wrote for the "Outlook" the wonderful editorial headed simply, "John Bigelow: Gentleman"; but for those who knew him, he is simply John Bigelow, the beloved friend, the tender father whose memory is kept alive in human hearts, whose traditions will live for a long time to come be-cause he was so greatly loved.