An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(5)

Rich inhabitants of big cities like Cleveland, Chicago, and Pittsburgh didn’t need to be told twice. They’d show the world how people should put their free time to good use. From the early 1880s, the banks of Lake Chautauqua were gradually clad in wood—in hotels and summerhouses built in neo-Gothic style, each more expensive and luxurious than the next, intended for “the Wealth and Fashion from leading American cities.” And along with flirting men in their carefree straw boater hats and women in their elegant summer outfits, Glamour and her little sister Frivolity also arrived in Chautauqua.

The city dwellers came by train, followed by streams of servants and stacks of travel trunks. On the Jamestown docks, they transferred to the white steamboats, elegantly decorated with filigree, of the Great White Fleet that sailed across the lake from six o’clock in the morning until midnight without interruption. In the evening, the boats, romantically lit by oil lamps, were used for moonlight cruises and transportation to and from the many dance parties, concerts, theater shows, vaudevilles, straw rides, dinners, and other forms of entertainment organized for the summer guests.

And so Allene grew up in a world with two faces. In early May, when nature burst out from under the last remains of the snow, the shutters of lakeside fairy-tale palaces would open and everything would be readied for the short, hot, festive summer season. At the end of August, when the trees began to change color, the party would end as abruptly as it had begun. The shutters would be closed; the lake would again become the quiet domain of flocks of migratory birds and a few solitary fishermen. And Jamestown would return to its mundane, wintery self: an essentially sober, God-fearing town, moderate in everything except its ambitions.

The inhabitants of Jamestown looked on the annual summer invasion with mixed feelings. It was true that holidaymakers brought money and prosperity, and the townspeople were businesslike enough to take advantage of this down to the last cent. But the summer visitors also introduced to Chautauqua all the ailments of modern city life that the townspeople, as true Victorians, were so very afraid of: godlessness, gambling, alcohol, promiscuity, and—heaven forbid—fallen women and unwanted pregnancies. The rich young bachelors who treated the lake as their favorite playground during those years were particularly regarded with suspicion. They gambled and they drank; they swam in money and seemed to have little else to do than turn the heads of as many local girls as possible.

Girls such as Allene Tew, for example. Perhaps because it was unclear which class she belonged to, always floating from the livery stable of her mother’s family on the one side to the Tews’ bank building on the other. Perhaps, too, because she was the only child of rather passive parents and lacked the tight harness of a larger family. In any case, she was different, freer than her female cousins and peers and considerably less inclined to act like a lady as it was then defined.

Her grandfather Andrew Smith, the coachman, had instilled in Allene a great love of horses. She could ride like a boy—and often better than one. And she was clever; she had, a friend would later attest, “a quick wit and a daring that became her.” Quick wit and daring weren’t the only things that suited her. With her dark blond hair, pale blue eyes, and elegant figure, she was unmistakably a young woman every man would look at—“a blue-eyed blonde with defiantly arched eyebrows,” as she once was described.

Allene’s gaze indeed contrasted with the humility and modesty preached as typical feminine virtues during that period. Perhaps, those eyes said, her parents weren’t endowed with the unbridled dynamism of the Tews, but she was. She longed for pleasure, for adventure, and particularly for a world that was larger than the essentially small-town Jamestown.

In short, Allene Tew had everything anyone might need to get into trouble. And that is what she did.

Theodore “Tod” Hostetter was the nightmare incarnate of every father in Jamestown. “Charming . . . rakish . . . a gay Lothario, as reckless as he was handsome” was how a journalist friend of his characterized him. He could amply afford his arrogance because even though this heir from Pittsburgh was scarcely twenty years old the first time he met Allene, he had already received such an improbably large fortune that all he had to do for the rest of his life was spend it as creatively as possible.

Tod had his father, David Hostetter, to thank for the excess of dollars. David’s life story contained precisely the magical mix of elements that convinced immigrants all over the world to jump on boats to America. Raised as the son of a village doctor in a sparsely populated, poor farming region in Pennsylvania, David had tried to make his fortune as a young man during the gold rush in California. When gold turned out to be more difficult to find than first thought, he opened a grocery store, which soon burned down. After that, he returned home, his tail between his legs, with no other future before him than the heavy, physically exhausting existence of a railway laborer.

But David never abandoned his dream of becoming rich, and when he was thirty-four, he came up with the idea of commercially exploiting his father’s home-brewed herbal elixir. Dr. J. Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters proved a resounding success right from its introduction in 1854. It was sold as a remedy for ailments as diverse as stomachaches, bowel complaints, nervousness, and depression, and the Union Army even purchased it on a large scale as a cure for diarrhea during the Civil War.

Years later, when its secret recipe was finally analyzed, it would become clear why it made every patient feel significantly better. In addition to containing some herbs and water, the potion turned out to be loaded with alcohol—estimates vary from 32 to a whopping 47 percent. At a time when antialcohol campaigners such as Allene’s grandfather William were managing to banish liquor from public life, the herbal remedy became an attractive alternative.

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