Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Maria Cecil Gist, Rebecca's Sister-In-Law

Maria Cecil Gist (detail)
by Matthew Harris Jouett. Oil on convas, Lexington, KY, 1820-25. Courtesy of Rosenbach Museum & Library, Philadelphia. Gift of Mrs. Anderson Gratz 1984.0005.

The dearest friend and most faithful correspondent of Rebecca's middle years was her non-Jewish sister-in-law in Kentucky, Maria Cecil Gist Gratz (1797-1841). Maria's acquaintance with the Gratz family began, not with Benjamin, her future husband, but with Rebecca, whom she met when she accompanied her mother and her ailing sister to Philadelphia in 1818 in search of medical assistance.

Despite the sixteen years difference in age, Rebecca did not fall into the "aunt" role which characterized her relationships with so many younger men and women. Maria's intelligence, her literary interests, her charming personality and, as their friendship progressed, the revelation that she too was a spiritual pilgrim would serve to cement a friendship between equals.

This is Rebecca's description of Maria Gist shortly after she met her (note the use of the terms "good sense" and "sensible," which were Rebecca's highest forms of praise):

"[S]he is a girl of great good sense and has a cultivated mind. Too remote from fashionable education to be accomplished in music and dancing she has bestowed more time in reading and as her family were genteel and well-bred and her education directed by a sensible woman [Maria's mother] her manners are exceedingly frank and engaging. Indeed I have rarely met with persons more calculated to attract affection...."

Socially and economically, the two were peers. Maria's father, Nathaniel Gist, a Revolutionary War veteran, received a large land grant and moved his family from Virginia to their new estate Canewood outside of Lexington, Kentucky in the 1790's. A decade after his death, his widow had married General Charles Scott who soon after become governor of Kentucky (1808-1812). Like Rebecca, Maria had grown up as part of the local elite.

The two women had just met when Maria's sister died suddenly. Rebecca offered the hospitality of the Gratz home to Maria and her mother so that they could mourn in private among people who sympathized rather than continue at the public boardinghouse where they had been staying.

If he had not been introduced to her earlier in her visit, Benjamin Gratz, Rebecca's youngest brother, made Maria's acquaintance during the two weeks she and her mother spent in the Gratz household before they returned to Kentucky. Since he was about to go west on business Mrs. Scott and Maria invited him to Canewood when he was in the area. Ben left a few weeks after Maria started her trip home. At Baltimore, he received a letter from Rebecca saying that she had heard from Maria: "She writes charmingly & sends kind messages to you" [Rebecca's emphasis]. If Ben had not already determined to visit Canewood at his earliest opportunity, this message would have certainly encouraged him to do so. Benjamin Gratz would return to Philadelphia many times in the course of his long life, but he would never live there again: his future was in Kentucky and with Maria.

(Rebecca's description of Maria is in a letter to Maria Fenno Hoffman in the Gratz Family Collection at the American Jewish Historical Society. Her letter to Ben is published in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Philipson.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arcadia and History

I just saw a new production of one of my favorites, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, and I am still bedazzled. The play deals with order v. chaos, classicism v. romanticism, logic v. intuition, and that's just scraping the surface. Given its themes, I am not sure how it happens (Mr. Stoppard has famously written of the theater, "It's a mystery"), but in the course of the play, witty conversation, brilliant ideas, hilarity, tears and, if you're lucky, a moment of transcendence all ensue.

The play takes place in one room of an English country house, but at different times -- 1809-1812 and the present, with scenes alternating between the two periods. Much of the hilarity has to do with a modernday professor, armed with a few documents, who theorizes about events which occurred at the house when Lord Byron visited there in 1809 . The audience knows exactly what happened, and we delight in how very wrong the academic gets it.

This time around, this particular aspect of the play hit a little closer to home than ever before. Two weeks ago I presented my ideas at the Rosenbach Museum & Library about what happened when Washington Irving and Walter Scott had a chat at a Scottish country house in the late summer of 1817 (similar, isn't it?). I was explaining how Rebecca Gratz might have become the topic of conversation between the two literary men. It has long been a legend that Irving's description of her to Scott inspired the character Rebecca in Scott's novel Ivanhoe; I provided a historical context which lent more credence to the story.

Arcadia served as a reminder of how past the past is, how we will never really know. This can be a salutary reminder of the limits of "expertise," but it also casts the pursuit of knowledge as an often futile exercise. Fortunately, the play provides a response to this dilemma. In the second act a scholar and a scientist are arguing about the ridiculous triviality of each other's specialties, when another character breaks in with, "It's all trivial....It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in."

So we want to know, but we can never know. We're doomed to failure and yet we keep trying to make sense of things, sometimes discerning patterns in history and nature, sometimes creating and imposing patterns on the same. It's a human thing, and if I cannot acquire or pass on perfect knowledge, I may still see further, though through a distorted lens, than I would have done otherwise. In this blog, I'm just letting you know what I think I've found and why I think it's true. I hope it will be of some use to you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beautiful Betsy Bonaparte

Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, shown above in three views by Gilbert Stuart, was the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore businessman. In 1803 when Jerome Bonaparte, the youngest brother of Napoleon, came to the United States, he met Betsy at a ball, and despite her father's apprehensions, they were married before the end of the year by Archbishop Carroll of Baltimore.
Jerome already had celebrity status in America just by being a Bonaparte, and his beautiful bride enhanced his luster. Betsy would cultivate a celebrity of her own by wearing fashions so diaphanous they hardly hid her nakedness. (For more information about the styles of the day, see "Women's Fashions, 1800. Part 1.")

Napoleon, who had dynastic alliances planned for his relatives, was not amused by his brother's activities in America. The couple however was enjoying a honeymoon, touring a number of American cities before setting sail for France to plead with Napoleon to accept their marriage. On April 21, 1804, they rolled into Philadelphia, where they stayed for a few days across the street from the Gratz house.

A measure of the excitement they stirred: even the cool Rebecca Gratz went to the window to view their arrival. Solomon Moses, who was visiting the Gratz's, had no compunctions about gawking at the open front door. But while Rebecca was curious, she was not envious. Thinking of Mrs. Bonaparte, she wrote, "Last year she could go anywhere unnoted."

If you try to name famous women of antebellum America, you will discover not celebrated women but controversial ones: Lucretia Mott, the abolitionist; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, feminists; Margaret Fuller, a Transcendentalist and intellectual, and of course Harriet Beecher Stowe. Only Dolley Madison achieved in the course of her long life general approbation. It is no wonder that the idea of celebrity held no allure for Rebecca.

After her initial look, Rebecca decided the Bonaparte's would just be a nuisance. She expected that "loungers" would soon appear in the street and on the sidewalks. She also noted that it was likely that the Gratz's would receive an unusual number of visitors as long as the couple was in the vicinity.

Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte sailed for France a short while after their stay in Philadelphia, but only Jerome was permitted to go ashore. Betsy went to England to give birth to a son and await her husband's return. She never saw him again. When Napoleon could not bully the Pope into annulling the marriage, he annulled it himself and married Jerome off to a German princess.
Betsy Bonaparte returned to America with her child and eventually was granted a divorce by the Maryland legislature. After the fall of Napoleon, she tried to interest the Bonapartes in granting her and her son financial support but failed completely. As an heiress herself, Betsy was not looking for money so much as recognition of her son's legitimate place in the Bonaparte family. Betsy never remarried, resumed her role in America's high society and showed that she could take care of herself: she invested her inheritance wisely, lived into her 90's and died a millionairess.

(Rebecca's letter to her sister Rachel is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Revision: The Rebecca Gratz Club

I have revised my earlier post on the Rebecca Gratz Club to reflect new information I recently came across. To see the revised version, click here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 4, 2011: Rebecca's 230th Birthday

It was the custom in Rebecca Gratz's day for family and friends to offer toasts on birthdays. So if you are lifting a glass today, kindly remember our Becky with a toast to her memory and the fine example she has set us.
Powered by WebRing.