An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew(9)

She’d shown this mentality when she organized a vacation house the summer she wasn’t welcome at her in-laws’. She showed it again when her daughter Greta, born on September 27, 1891, was as stubbornly ignored by her new milieu as she was. In his official capacity as vice president of the Hostetter business, Tod was accepted as a member of one of the leading gentlemen’s clubs in Pittsburgh. But his wife and daughter didn’t even get a mention in the Pittsburgh and Allegheny Blue Book directory, in which his mother had featured for years as the embodiment of Victorian feminine virtues:

In her tastes Mrs. Hostetter is thoroughly domestic; famous as a housekeeper, the best sort of wife, and as a mother simply adorable. Mrs. Hostetter dresses in excellent taste, in a style entirely suitable for her years.

This meant total social isolation for Allene. She was not invited anywhere, she couldn’t leave her visiting card anywhere, and no one came to visit her. It was as though she and Greta simply did not exist.

Again a detour was necessary, and again Allene found one. It was in the impressive form of the Daughters of the American Revolution, one of the most exclusive of the women’s clubs shooting out of the ground like mushrooms at the time. In most cases, these clubs functioned as covert vehicles to higher social positions. The DAR had been set up in 1890 with the official goal to keep alive the memory of America’s ancestors and advance education in remote areas. Membership was restricted to the descendants of people who had fought in the War of Independence.

In December 1892, Allene signed up for the Pittsburgh branch of the DAR. She filled in her lineage on the application with great precision. Her bloodline went back to a British immigrant from Northamptonshire who had settled in Rhode Island in 1640, when America was still a British colony, and started a commercial farm. His daughter, born on the voyage over, was given the poetic name Seaborn. Several generations later, one of his great-grandsons joined those who took up arms against England and paid with his life: in 1782 Captain Henry Tew was purported to have died on the infamous British prisoner ship the HMS Jersey.

Later, research would indicate that the captain in question had never existed, and Allene would be struck off the membership list. But at the time, the Pittsburgh branch of the DAR’s research didn’t reach that far. Energetic, wealthy members were needed, and the application was accepted. With this, Allene took her first step on the path to the respectability she had lost so radically by getting pregnant out of wedlock and eloping with her lover.

In the meantime, it slowly began to dawn upon Tod’s mother that her new daughter-in-law was more than just a pretty face with an excess of ambition. Allene was strong and cheerful and precisely the anchor her charming but still stormy and, in essence, completely irresponsible son needed. What’s more, Tod was and remained head over heels for his wife and little daughter and more or less functioned, in any case in the eyes of the outside world, as a respectable member of the management of the family business.

Allene and Tod spent the summer of 1892 again in their own Jimtown, where the sailing club was rebaptized the Conanicut Yacht Club and given its own accommodation in the form of a clubhouse financed by Tod, complete with a mooring jetty and a map room on the first floor. That fall, Allene became pregnant for the second time. Shortly thereafter, Tod’s mother put aside her pride and moved back into her old house. As if to emphasize to the outside world that Tod’s wife was now a proper member of the family, Rosetta and her daughter applied several years later for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

For decades, Americans had been able to bask in the casual ease of their ever-growing affluence, but this changed from one day to the next in February 1893, when some alarming articles appeared in the newspapers. As a consequence of an economic depression in Europe, investors, especially British ones, were selling their overseas shares, particularly those in American railways, en masse, which drove down share prices. As a result, American banks began to get into difficulty, and the United States tumbled into a depression that would ultimately result in the bankruptcy of fifteen thousand businesses, of which seventy-four were railway companies and six hundred were banks.

The Panic of 1893, as this serious economic depression was called, made it painfully clear how dependent the young country actually was on foreign capital. But even more painful was the way it showed how completely amoral and unscrupulous Wall Street had become. Large commercial banks such as J.P. Morgan had implemented all kinds of practices and tricks to manipulate share value. There was no governmental control or legislation, and there was no one cheated investors could turn to because even judges allowed themselves to be paid off by the omnipotent banking sector.

As often was the case, it wasn’t the instigators of the crisis who received the hardest knocks. No, it was the working class, and especially the hundred thousand unemployed. There wasn’t any work, there were no benefits, there wasn’t a single form of relief; for these people, the American dream had degenerated into a nightmare from which there was no escape.

The millionaires, on the other hand, partied and spent money as though nothing was wrong. Mrs. Astor had already lost her battle against the new money and accompanying bad taste that had flooded New York. Her nineteenth-century old New York, with its painterly streets, sober brownstones, and romantic gas lamps, was ousted by the noisy glitter and glamour of the nouveaux riches who moved to the city from all over America to show off their fortunes.

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