Thursday, May 21, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Grant’s Girl Weds Cad)

May 21, 1874—As she was escorted down the aisle by her father, President Ulysses S. Grant, in the most ballyhooed White House social event of the 19th century, 18-year-old Ellen “Nellie” Grant resembled nobody so much as another pretty, headstrong but innocent American girl, Henry James’ fictional heroine Daisy Miller. 

Fifteen years later, as the marriage concluded in quiet but painful divorce, she had morphed into another Jamesian heroine, Isabel Archer, all too familiar with domination by a philanderer in no way worthy of her.

Nellie Grant was not the first Presidential child to marry in the President’s mansion (that honor belonged to Maria Hester Monroe), but her ceremony set a standard for gaudiness and media frenzy. 

It also represented a particularly striking instance of what I alluded to in the first paragraph: the transatlantic wedding.

Henry James and Edith Wharton spun many of their plots from romances involving American girls and dashing foreigners (usually British men) who turned out to be emblematic of Old World corruption. Their fiction was based on real-life incidents.

The consequence of one such (mis)alliance occurred later in the same year as Nellie Grant’s wedding, when the impetuous young American heiress Jennie Jerome gave birth to her son by rising young British politico, Randolph Churchill. Sir Winston Churchill would become the ultimate example of the “special relationship” between the U.K. and the U.S.A.

The James/Wharton plots often turned on what James called “the money passion”—i.e., the desire of impecunious, desiccated European aristos to fill up their coffers with a favorable liaison with a young American girl. 

Money was not really the motive here, in this case: though Nellie’s new husband, Algernon Charles Sartoris, was deemed “minor gentry,” he was also heir to a considerable estate. (Question: if “minor gentry” could get a “considerable estate,” where did that leave “major gentry”—and where are these heirs know that we need them?)

Nellie Grant was as much of an American girl as you could get—not only was her father the President of the United States and the military hero who had saved the Union, but she herself had been born on the Fourth of July. 

She was the first teenage girl in the White House since Abigail Fillmore, and newspapers—which had exploded in size and sheer noise in the generation since Miss Fillmore—couldn’t get enough of her doings.

The press made much of the fact that Nellie loved parties, but from what I can tell, Nellie wasn’t guilty of anything more than what girls her age then and now loved: a good time.

As the only daughter among the President’s four children, however, she knew how to get around her loving and protective father. Only a few days after being hustled off to finishing school, she’d prevailed upon Ulysses and Julia Grant to take her out, pleading homesickness. Their subsequent plan—to send her to Europe, with chaperones—ended up being undermined, too.

On the return trip home, on a ship called the Russia, the chaperones were confined to their cabins with sea-sickness, leaving Nellie to spend time with the charming 22-year-old Algernon Sartoris.

He had much to beguile a young girl: not just all the polish that comes with affluence, but also a fine singing voice (a genetic inheritance from his mother, a retired opera singer) and undoubtedly a fund of rich entertainment lore, not just from his mother, but from his aunt, the actress Fanny Kemble (who, as I noted in a prior post, had her own disastrous marriage, with a Southern slaveholder).

When he got news of the romance, the President felt considerable consternation. It wasn’t only that Nellie was young or that he and Julia would have preferred an American, but that he felt at least some misgivings about the groom.

Now this is saying something. If Grant—who, historians say, was so guileless that his administration was continually rocked by subordinates’ financial misdeeds, even though he never was personally touched by it—was suspicious, Algy Sartoris must have emitted some bad vibes.

Indeed, the President, not wanting to shilly-shally around, even came right out with it and wrote to his family, asking if the young man a) intended to live in Europe in the event he married Nellie, and b) had a sexual past that would make him unsuitable as his daughter’s swain.

“She is my only daughter,” Grant confided apologetically, “and I therefore feel a double interest in her welfare...I hope you will attribute any apparent bluntness to a fathers anxiety for the welfare and happiness of an only and much loved daughter."

Put yourself in the Sartoris family’s place: Are you going to say, “Yes, Algy’s a dog that no self-respecting girl should be around”? Didn’t think so. Anyway, maybe he hid this failing at the time, or maybe it had not even become an issue yet.

But what Grant learned was enough to fill him with misgivings: Following the wedding, the young couple would live abroad. 

Oh, and Algy did have one slight issue: a bit of a drinking problem. That last point must have hit home with the President, as he himself had been known to hit the bottle when his beloved wife Julia was away and his career was frustrating him.

A word here: I don’t know if the general read many novels, but if he had been able to get this mismatch put off for another year, alarm bells would have rung even louder if he had been able to get his hands on Anthony Trollope’s brilliant chronicle of financial corruption and ruin in Victorian Britain and America, The Way We Live Now

In particular, in that book he’d have read, with mounting dismay, about Sir Felix Carbury, a attractive young aristocrat like Algernon Sartoris—one with no interest in hard work but plenty in card-playing, drinking and women.

As it was, Ulysses and Julia were not crazy about this whole thing. Yet Nellie was unmoved by her parents’ entreaties. All they could convince her to do was hold off on the wedding for a year.

When it finally came off and the Marine Band played Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” the wedding was covered in breathless detail by a press that had been given greater access to the President’s family than at any time in history. 

If you’re peeved by all the coverage of Michelle Obama and her cute daughters, don’t blame the current White House—blame the Grants, who fed the media’s obsession with their children, their horses, and even the White House as a home. (Julia was the first First Lady to grant occasional interviews.)

The press really outdid themselves covering the wedding. If you want to read all the orgiastic details, I can refer you to William Seale’s authoritative The President’s House

Suffice it to say that the bride’s white satin gown, “trimmed in rate Brussels point lace,” was supposed to be worth thousands of dollars (a big sum at the time), and that, for the reception, the Grants’ wedding planner, Valentino Melah, turned to a Washington caterer whose clientele were the richest of the rich.

When the East Room festivities were over, the President lay on his departed daughter’s bed and wept. And well he might, because Grant was not only losing his favorite child but gaining someone who would give her no end of troubles.

The four children that Nellie and Algy Sartoris had in quick succession were not the best indication of the couple’s relationship. Those indications would be the increasing amount of time they spent apart, Algy’s growing inability to handle his liquor, and, beginning in the 1880s—when the Grants were, thankfully, out of the White House—his public appearances with females who were not his wife.

A few years after her father’s grueling death from cancer, the Sartoris family took pity on Nellie. Knowing that she was not to blame for her wayward husband’s problems, they settled a nice sum of money on her, let her depart for America with the children, and arranged as amicable a parting from Algy as was possible under the circumstances.

The divorce and Algy’s death in 1893 left Nellie a free, and still young, woman, but she was reluctant to tie the knot again anytime soon because of the responsibilities of raising four children. 

It would be nearly twenty years, on her 57th birthday, when she finally remarried, to a childhood friend that she probably should have been with from the start.

Her happiness was short-lived. Three months after the wedding, she was paralyzed, and remained an invalid for the last 10 years of her life.

When she finally died, the peculiar Victorian norms that surrounded her romance and ensured her longtime unhappiness would have been incomprehensible to the generation then coming of age in the Roaring Twenties.

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