- “Not in ‘society’ exactly, we were professional people”
In 1954, seven years into her retirement, Virginia Gildersleeve published her autobiography, Many a Good Crusade, to favorable reviews. Undertaken in part – as with most instances of the genre – to preempt posthumous scrutiny by telling her story first as she wanted it told, her account of her early life offers a clear-eyed and unapologetic portrait of a privileged family in the New York society of her day.
Virginia Crocheron Gildersleeve was born on October 3, 1877, in New York City. Her childhood was passed as part of a family socially and economically secure, one safely “arrived.” “We were not in ‘society’ exactly,” her mother once explained to her, “we were professional people.” The family resided at 28 West Forty-eighth Street, just off Fifth Avenue, “a very quiet and respectable street in those days.”
Our house was brick with brownstone trim, but practically all the other houses
on both sides of the street were the orthodox brownstone complete, four stories
and basement, high stoop in front. They were inhabited by solid American families.
I recall the names of the Griswolds, the Whitfields, the Rhinelanders, the Frelinghuysens.
A few of them were more wealthy and more socially prominent than we were.
Andrew Carnegie’s future wife lived across the street.
The autobiography then went on to describe the domestic service common to such households, along with a passing judgment on the New Yorkers then in service:
They[her parents] had two maids, — a cook and a chambermaid-waitress – and they had
someone come in to do the washing . The servants were almost invariably Irish. From my third-
story rear bedroom I could often hear fiddles playing Irish jigs as maids in neighboring
kitchens danced at night. I grew up with the vague and utterly preposterous idea that
domestic servants were the only variety of persons produced by that brilliant race.
Both sides of Virginia’s family claimed long American lineages. The Gildersleeves went eight generations back to a New England landfall in 1635; the Crocherons were part of the French Huguenot diaspora that came to Staten Island in the 1690s. Such geneaological credentials mattered to its author, devoting the opening 14 pages of her autobiography to them, including a non-judgmental account of the Crocherons’ stake in an Alabama cotton plantation, with 200 slaves held as property.
While Virginia’s mother (and namesake) was depicted as a powerful force domestically, and whom Virginia “loved very dearly,” it was the family’s men who garnered most of her retrospective attention. Her father, Henry Alger Gildersleeve, a Civil War veteran, organizer of the American Rifle Association and later a prominent lawyer and an elected municipal judge, who later served as a justice on the Supreme Court of the State of New York, she described as “spectacularly handsome” (with a picture of him at 70 to prove it). Of her two older brothers, Alger and Harry (there had also been two older sisters but both died before Virginia was born), it is the younger Harry, seven years her senior, who is depicted as “this radiant figure of my childhood” and “the brilliant member of the family.” Several pages on, after acknowledging that her childhood to that point had been one where “no sorrow had ever touched me,” returned to her beloved Harry, who, just after completing Columbia law school in the fall of 1891, contracted typhoid fever and then died. “At that moment,” she wrote, “a black curtain cut my life in two.”
To help with their daughter’s grieving, the Gildersleeves sent the 14-year-old Virginia to the City’s most socially exclusive day private school, Brearley, then located four blocks away on West 44th Street. They did so on the recommendation of Frederick Coudert, a legal colleague of Judge Gildersleeve and a fellow member of the Century Club. The school was one of the many feminist projects undertaken by Caroline Choate, the wife of NYC’s leading attorney, Joseph Choate, another professional acquaintance of her father and another Centurion. Brearley had opened in 1881 with the initial intention of preparing New York City girls for the Harvard entrance exams to its then two-year-old “Annex”; by Virginia’s arrival in 1891 it had become a feeder to the then 6-year-old Bryn Mawr College.
In the fall of her senior year at Brearley, Virginia decided that if she were to go on to college it would be to Bryn Mawr, where most of her college-bound classmates were headed. Her mother, intent on keeping her at home, ruled otherwise. “There is a perfectly good college here in New York,” by which she meant Barnard, then a 10-minute walk from home, she informed her distraught daughter. It came recommended by Mrs. Choate, Counsellor Coudert and any number of the Gildersleeve social acquaintances who served on its board.
The decision to send their daughter to Barnard did not sit well with her. Among Barnard’s admission requirements, identical with those of Columbia College, was three years of Greek, which Brearley had not previously offered. This made necessary a cram course in the subject on top of her regular program and produced much anxiety about the entrance exam when it was administered in the spring. She was the only girl from Brearley or from the City’s other and newer private school favored by the City’s elite families, the Spence School, which was founded in 1892 by Barnard trustee, Clara Spence. Officially accepted for admission, the still-not-reconciled Virginia appeared at 343 Madison Avenue brownstone on October 3, 1895, her eighteenth birthday, along with the other 21 entering members of the Class of 1899, by her own account, “shy, snobbish, solemn.”
Yet within a year, Virginia became a leader of her class, confirmed by her election as sophomore class vice president. How and why this turnabout? Her academic success made her an early favorite of her teachers but her social success is less easily accounted for. Her mother’s proximity and availability as a hostess to student gatherings – she was made an honorary member of the class of 1899 in Virginia’s first year – likely helped.
Of the 27 young women who at some point were members of the Class of 1899, five are mentioned in Gildersleeve’s account of her college years. One, Grace Goodale, is cited briefly for the novelty of her not coming from New York City but from upstate. (She later taught at Barnard under Gildersleeve.) More attention is given to Alice Duer [Miller] who entered the Barnard Class of 1899 as a junior. The grand daughter of William A. Duer, president of Columbia College (1829-42) and great granddaughter of Rufus King, a signer of the Constitution and longtime chairman of the Columbia board of trustees, her father, James Gore King Duer, a well known speculator, declared bankruptcy the year his daughter was to be presented to society, leaving his family financially adrift. Alice then delayed going to college until able to pay her own way through Barnard through journalism and fiction writing for magazines. Three years older than her classmates and financially on her own, Alice Duer was the class exotic. Five months after graduating she married a young broker, William Miller, became a full-time journalist, feminist and active supporter of the suffrage movement. During the interwar years her husband’s success on Wall Street allowed her to devote herself to writing fiction and poetry, as well as screen writing for Hollywood. She remained a lifelong friend of Virginia Gildersleeve, who more than a half-century after making her acquaintance, recalled her as a school girl: “She was beautiful and she was brilliant and she was charming. She brought into our classrooms a glamour from the outer world and her friendship gave me the romance of my youth.”
Marjorie Jacobi [McAneny] also joined the Class of 1899 as a junior. She was the daughter of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, one of the first women physicians in the United States, and Dr. Abraham Jacobi, professor of pediatrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons (which was integrated into Columbia University in 1892) and the oft described “father of American pediatrics.” Shortly after graduation, Marjorie married George McAneny, a wealthy, socially connected and politically active New Yorker, who later served as chairman of NYC Board of Aldermen . Two other classmates were residentially cited. Of Edith Striker: “gay and laughing and loyal, whose home was in East Orange, New Jersey.” Alte Stilwell:, “nimble-witted and warmhearted, who lived in a pleasant, dignified Harlem street.” Left unmentioned were Rosalie Bloomingdale, Sarah Straus, Ella Seligsberg and Martha Ornstein, all from prominent German-Jewish families residing on the East Side, and Eliza Kupfer, whose parents were Jews from Russia and lived on the West Side.
For Gildersleeve and her Barnard friends, those the New York Times called the “socially, intellectually and athletically prominent,” (Virginia played golf and was familiar with guns) their sorority provided a touch of exclusivity and privilege in an otherwise more egalitarian and meritocratic environment. Duer, Jacobi, Sriker and Stilwell were all with Gildersleeve members of the Kappa Kappa Gamma , the first and until 1897 the only fraternity [the contemporary termat Barnard. At its founding in 1891, its membership included the entire student body. It later became increasingly selective. By 1895-96, its membership included less than a quarter of the student body and the only first-year student invited to join that spring was our Virginia Gildersleeve. She later saw to the inclusion of her four friends. Not included was a majority of her class, specifically its four or five Jewish members, one of whom, Sarah Straus, would, as Sarah Straus Hess, later become a long-serving member of the Barnard board of trustees.
Her sorority sisters must have been the sample from which came two remarks in her autobiography, the first that her class was “far less varied in make-up than a college class of today,” and the second, that all were “all more or less on the same social level.” The first was true enough, but the second likely reflects the author’s desire to minimize the social tensions at the already anything but socially homogeneous and inclusive Barnard of her college days .
Going unmentioned in her autobiography was an incident that occurred in 1897, when Virginia was a sophomore. That spring a popular member of the Class of 1898 from New Orleans, Stella Stern, was denied admission to the KKG fraternity because she was Jewish. The excluded Stern and three of her classmates, Jessie Hughan, ’98, Helen St. Clair (Mullan) ’98, and Elizabeth Wyman ’98, Christians all, protested the decision and challenged the KKG monopoly by forming their own fraternity, Alpha Omnicron Pi [AOP], with a charter that explicitly prohibited discrimination on the basis of religion. In the decade that followed six more chapters of national fraternities were established at Barnard, all but AOP closed to Barnard’s growing number of Jewish students.
It was not that as a student Gildersleeve ignored changes occurring around her. In the spring of her senior year she published an undergraduate essay on “The Changing College Population”. The change she focused on was what she lamented was the declining focus on academics studies among the newest students and their increasing attention to the social aspects of college-going. Whatever the validity of this characterization, it conveys no awareness of more sweeping changes occurring in the economic circumstances of Barnard students, and certainly no indication that these reportedly more fun-loving newcomers were any less well off or socially credentialed than “the studious middle-class daughters” of earlier Barnard classes. And no mention at all of students whose backgrounds did not qualify them as “middle class,” however “studious”.
Virginia’s academic prizes in her senior year included the Fiske Graduate Fellowship, which provided for a year’s graduate study at Columbia. She used it to pursue an MA degree in medieval history under guidance of James Harvey Robinson, with whom she had studied at Barnard. Degree in hand in the summer of 1900, she was offered an assistantship in English at Barnard with responsibility for a section of freshman English . The following year and for the three thereafter she held the rank of tutor and taught two sections. But when in the spring of 1905, William Tenney Brewster, in charge of staffing Barnard’s English courses, informed Gildersleeve she was to teach all sections of required Sophomore English – which would involve reading and grading 100 essays a week – she resigned.
Travel in Europe that summer was followed by the offer, through Annie Nathan Meyer’s intervention with President Butler, of a graduate fellowship for PhD studies. During her first two years of graduate study Gildersleeve renewed her teaching ties to Barnard, only to have them severed in the spring of 1907 when her services were discontinued for budgetary reasons as one of the last acts of Laura Gill as dean. Three more years of study and writing resulted in her completing requirements for a PhD in English and the ensuing publication of her dissertation, Government Regulation of the Elizabethan Theatre. Throughout these years she continued to live with her parents.
In the fall of 1908, PhD studies over and Gill gone, Gildersleeve returned to Barnard in an $800 lectureship to teach a section of William P. Trent’s lecture course. She was then offered $500 more to teach Shakespeare on a Columbia salary as part of Columbia-Barnard faculty exchange. In 1909 she was promoted to an assistant professorship in the Columbia English Department, the first woman to achieve professorial rank. When a male colleague accepted a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin and offered Virginia an associate professorship there, she declined it. Her explanation – ‘”I could not leave New York”. To which her would-be patron rejoined: “’Good heavens, you will never make a career for yourself that way.”’ Her refusal does, however, give credence to her retrospective and self-deprecatory description of her pre-deaning days: “I drift into a profession.”