An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(8)

And so love’s disturbing element began her new life in Pittsburgh in the form of the now visibly pregnant Allene. She and Tod shared the large house at 171 Western Avenue with eight members of staff, most of whom had been in service to Rosetta, Tod’s mother, for years. American servants were famous for being considerably ruder than their European colleagues. That, coupled with the fact that the staff must have been aware of the details surrounding Allene’s marriage to their young master and the fact that their very young new mistress wasn’t exactly from the upper crust, must have made her role as head of housekeeping even harder.

Allene’s reception into her husband’s family might have been icy and the atmosphere in the dark lump of stone on Western Avenue not much warmer, but it did get hot in the months that followed. The summers in the south of Pennsylvania were known for stuffy heat that often persisted for weeks, and the more temperatures rose, the more the stench and smoke from the hellhole that was downtown Pittsburgh blew toward their green town in the hills. Houses and gardens were covered in a thin layer of soot, which, however assiduously the servants washed and scrubbed, could never be entirely cleaned away.

This was why the rich of Allegheny would prepare at the end of June for their annual exodus to cooler and fresher parts. The Hostetters usually departed for their holiday home in Narragansett Pier, a seaside resort on a Rhode Island bay. Shore Acres, which Tod’s father had built, was on Ocean Drive and had cool sea breezes galore and a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean. The house had sixteen rooms, but the family did not want Tod and his now very pregnant wife to stay there: Narragansett Pier was close to Newport, New York society’s regular summer colony where Mrs. Astor held her famous summer ball in her country house, Beechwood. An invitation to this indicated the pinnacle of success, since it came with automatic admission to the very highest social echelons of the country.

And so reputations in and around Newport had to be tended with particular care. Tod must have understood that his family absolutely could not permit any suggestion of having accepted his wife as one of their own, not after the damaging spring they’d had to endure.

Allene might have been still young and, in the beginning, still in awe of what a journalist friend of hers later described as “the glittering paradise of the Hostetters, where jewels were for the mere hint and money flowed like a veritable Niagara.” But even back then, she wasn’t the kind of woman to spend the entire summer closeted away in boiling-hot Pennsylvania. And so on July 5, 1891, a week before the official start of the ten-week summer season, the New York Times ran a notice that a “Mrs. Hostetter of Allegheny City” had rented a cottage on a small island facing Narragansett Pier that happened, perhaps by coincidence, to be called Jamestown.

Summer life in “Jimtown,” as regular visitors affectionately called the windswept rocky island, was completely different than in prim and ostentatiously wealthy summer colonies like Newport and Narragansett Pier. The cottages, built in the local shingle style, were fairly primitive and furnished with lightweight wicker furniture. Entertainment was equally unpretentious and consisted mainly of simple pleasures like walking, paddling in the sea, picnics, and looking for shells. As one visitor described it:

All guests were given free use of the resources of the house, rocks and harbor, and were expected to do exactly as they liked. Some sat inside playing the piano, some sat outside playing the guitar or banjo, some sat in rocking chairs, some on the grass . . . Some played tennis or quoits, some rowed, and a fine party of young folks went swimming off the pier, diving or jumping off its rail. And whatever we did, we sang in doing it.

While Allene enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, Tod spent most of his time “Grand Yachting,” a favorite sport of the Gilded Age millionaires. The spacious, deep, and sheltered bay off Rhode Island was exceptionally well suited to their very expensive steam sailing yachts equipped with all the creature comforts. America’s wealth had increased spectacularly, and in the summer the bay turned white with sails.

Tod’s ship, the Judy, was nearly a hundred feet long, had a permanent six-man crew, and had been designed by the famous yacht builder Nathanael Herreshoff. But however elegant the $25,000 ship was, there was no question of Tod being able to moor it in Newport, where the country’s most prestigious nautical club, the New York Yacht Club, had its own jetty and clubhouse. The yacht club was as famous for protecting its waterfront from socially undesirable elements as Mrs. Astor was for her ballroom, and there was no way this young and not-all-that-respectable Pittsburgh millionaire would have gotten through the voting process.

This was why Tod followed the example of William K. Vanderbilt, who, after being refused membership to the conservative New York men’s clubs, had set up his own Metropolitan Club. On July 14, 1891, Tod founded the Jamestown Yacht Club, together with a number of other yacht owners. He was elected first commodore—which in practice meant he was the person who paid everyone’s bills at the end of the day. And since, besides sailing, Tod was also mad about cards and other gambling games, a few weeks later, the sailing club gained a younger sister in the form of the Jamestown Card Club. The card club, according to its founding treaty, was intended to advance “Social Enjoyment among the Members.” Or rather, in the spirit of this wealthy young couple, entirely and only the pleasure of its members.

Allene had clearly inherited one thing from her pioneering forefathers, and that was the conviction that if there wasn’t a road, there must be a detour that would get you where you wanted to go. And if there wasn’t a detour, a road had to be built. “If one has the will and persistence, one CAN do things,” she wrote later.

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