An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(10)

On Fifth Avenue in particular, pseudo-Gothic constructions, fake chateaus, and sham palazzos shot up out of the ground like dragon’s teeth, each larger and more gaudy than the next. The houses were stuffed with artworks that had been pillaged from all over Europe and transported back to America by the shipload. It was rumored that the immensely rich newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst needed two warehouses to store all of the old-world possessions he had amassed. Young, extravagant millionaires like Alva Vanderbilt, Mamie Fish, and Tessie Oelrichs outdid each other with parties that, it seemed, couldn’t be expensive or bizarre enough, such as masquerade balls with themes like Roman orgies or French court dances. And if that wasn’t enough to amuse the guests, you could always, as Mamie Fish once did, have a dressed-up monkey act as guest of honor.

The excesses and exorbitant extravagances of the superrich were widely reported in tabloid papers like the New York Herald and Town Topics. Young America was obsessed with money, and the general public was so insatiable for details of the lives, houses, and parties of the rich that a headline like “Rich Woman Falls Down Stairs—Not Hurt” could easily make the front page.

The Hostetters, too, didn’t suffer in the least from the financial crisis. Their thinly veiled alcohol trade flourished, in fact, if only because the poor needed the solace of the herbal elixir more now than ever before and were prepared to spend their very last cent on it if necessary. This indifference to the crisis was reflected in Tod’s spending habits. In October 1893, when most of America was in the grip of financial uncertainty, he commissioned yacht builder Herreshoff to design for him a new, more luxurious, and even bigger sailboat.

The Duquesne was more than 130 feet long and cost $50,000. The boat was so imposing that even the snobs at the New York Yacht Club could no longer ignore it. Under the pressure of the financial crisis, they had already been forced to reappraise their norms regarding respectability. Now they accepted Tod as a member and granted the Duquesne a permanent mooring berth in their New York marina.

A month later Tod bought a piece of land near a fork in the Beaver River, about thirty miles north of Pittsburgh, for $25,000. A year earlier he had purchased nearly 250 acres in the same place because his young wife just couldn’t get used to the dirty air in Pittsburgh and longed for greenery and space.

Naid’s Delight, as Tod’s new property had been known, was described in 1770 by George Washington himself as “a good body of land.” It was beautifully situated on a small tributary of the Ohio River called Raccoon Creek. Still used as farmland, it was perfect for the luxurious hunting lodge the young millionaire couple had built on it. Decades later, workmen would still remember how generous and friendly their employer had been. He was, in the words of one of them, “a first-class fellow to work for,” with “few worries in life.”

On October 6, 1894, the Pittsburgh Press published a detailed article about Hostetter House, as the hunting lodge was called. According to the article, the house resembled a gigantic log cabin, once more showing that Allene wasn’t ashamed of her roots. She and Tod had been inspired by a building they’d seen the previous year in Chicago, during the first major world’s fair to be held on American soil. The California State Building resembled a Spanish-style country house, incorporating different woods characteristic of all the states.

But the log cabin—only the chimney was built of brick—was one the pioneers could never have dreamed of. The house had a total of twenty-five rooms, including an impressive dining-and-ballroom and a just-as-fine sitting room. In the basement there were wine cellars and other storage rooms but also apartments built for the eight servants who lived there year-round. Along the river, space had been cleared for their own jetty, from which a drive lined with stately poplars led to the house. Next to the house was a polo field and a nine-hole golf course and beyond that, a stone house for the estate manager, kennels for a pack of hounds, and three large stable blocks. These contained Tod’s favorite carriage, a tally-ho pulled by six horses, and—Allene’s pride and joy—no fewer than forty chestnut horses for riding.

The whole thing had cost about $100,000, and the Pittsburgh Press was lyrical in its description. The article’s headline read “Picturesque Raccoon Farm—A Country House of Magnificence where Wealth and Good Taste Are Combined to Produce the Happiest Effect.” Now Pittsburgh society could no longer ignore the young Mrs. Hostetter, who had carved herself a way into an environment that had originally greeted her with cold hostility. From 1895 onward, Mrs. T. R. Hostetter and her two daughters—the younger, Verna, was born in January 1893—were given their own mention in the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Blue Book. This meant that scarcely four years after her much-discussed wedding, the girl from Jamestown had succeeded in conquering first her in-laws and then the elite of one of the richest cities in America.


The Lucky Plunger

At what point would Allene start to suspect that there was something seriously wrong with her husband? That his fascination for every opportunity that permitted betting or gambling—poker games, horse races, dogfights, boxing matches—was more than a youthful indulgence he would grow out of as he matured and took on the responsibilities of a family? And that Tod’s restlessness—“He never sat still,” according to a stable boy—could not be tempered by either her love for him or his for her? That, on the contrary, it would become ever worse and eventually be his downfall?

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