An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(11)

She’d later tell a friend that the turning point came in the fall of 1895, shortly after Verna, their younger daughter, had fallen ill and died, tragically, on her sister Greta’s fourth birthday. Even Allene seemed to get over it fairly quickly. Death among babies and toddlers was quite common in those times—more than half of children died before their fifth year. For this reason, doctors often advised young parents not to get too attached to their children in the early years. What’s more, Allene and Tod were still young, and many more children were certain to come.

But for Tod, little Verna’s death was one too many. Perhaps this was because his childhood had been overshadowed by the early deaths of two older brothers—the first died at age twenty-three from an infection he’d contracted on a grand tour of Europe; the second died at seventeen of a contagious disease—and also by the premature death of his father, with whom Tod had been very close. And now he had to bury his two-year-old daughter, too, in the family plot high in the hills of Allegheny Cemetery, while there was nothing urgent or essential in his life to distract him from his grief.

The latter situation was, of course, the basis for Tod’s restlessness. A fellow heir to a fortune, William K. Vanderbilt, would once comment with a remarkable display of self-knowledge how difficult life was when your father had achieved everything humanly possible and had left you, despite his millions, without any space to do anything meaningful yourself. “Inherited wealth is a real handicap to happiness,” he said. “It is as certain death to ambition as cocaine is to morality.”

In the winter of 1895–1896, Tod met the man who would become his nemesis, David “Davy” C. Johnson. This native New Yorker had his own private racing stables, several gambling houses, and a reputation as one of the most legendary gamblers on the continent. When Tod met him, Davy was thirty-nine; his death fifteen years later would be commemorated in the New York Times with a mixture of awe and amazement:

You may talk about your plungers and betting men . . . but this country has never produced another such a man. He had played the game ever since he was ten years old and he met his losses with a smile. Defeat never found him despondent. His coolness when thousands were at stake was wonderful. He appeared oftentimes to be the least interested in the results when another man in his position would have been driven by the uncertainty to the verge of insanity . . . Johnson was probably the most venturesome gambler who ever operated on the American turf. It was no unusual thing for him to bet up to 50,000 dollars on an event and on what he was wont to call a dull afternoon, his custom was to toss a cent for stakes of 1,000 dollars a side.

Soon Tod was spending more and more time with his older friend in New York, which, thanks to the influence of new money, had grown into the only place in North America that could measure up to the big European cities in terms of influence and appearance. The leading travel-guide series Baedeker printed in 1893: “It is the wealthiest city of the New World, and inferior in commercial and financial importance to London alone among the cities of the globe.”

At first Tod would stay on the Duquesne in the New York Yacht Club marina during these trips, but when fellow members began to complain about the all-too-frequent presence of the not particularly socially acceptable Johnson, he rented a four-story mansion, complete with stables, at 12 East Sixty-Fifth Street. The house was walking distance from the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where Johnson inhabited a suite, and the clubs of Broadway, where the duo were known as “high rollers”—men for whom no challenge was too great.

Tod proved to be just as cool a player as, if not cooler than, his friend—“the nerviest gentleman player,” in the words of a New York evening paper. He accepted losses with a shrug; when he won, he’d treat everybody, or he’d give away his winnings to passing newspaper delivery boys. His luck was legendary, particularly with horse racing. Although he gave the impression of picking winners from thin air, the staff of restaurants he frequented later told journalists that he actually carefully studied previous results before laying his bets. He soon earned himself a name in gambling circles: the Lucky Plunger.

As Tod triumphed in his new role on Broadway, the country around him sank deeper and deeper into a seemingly endless economic recession. The contrast between the small group of elites who had ended up on the right side and the innumerable have-nots who had ended up on the wrong side of the American dream was very depressing by now—and all the more depressing because the instigators of the Panic of ’93, and with it all of the misery most Americans were suffering, were counted among that former group.

In liberal circles especially, more and more questions were being asked about the unbridled capitalism that had counted as a form of evangelicalism in the United States up to then. Characteristic is an article in the New York Times from July 12, 1896, which reports the departure of Tod’s Duquesne and several other expensive yachts for the New York Yacht Club’s annual cruise. The yacht club cruise was the undisputed high point of the sailing season. An armada of hundreds of sailing yachts would slowly make its way into the more than hundred mile Long Island Sound while participants entertained themselves with races, regattas, and parties. It was said that you could walk across the champagne corks to the other side the morning after the fleet had moored in a harbor. For a duty reporter from the New York Times, the departure was a good opportunity to point out the extreme dichotomy in the America of those days:

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