Saturday, July 29, 2017

Happy Birthday, Christine Paschall Davis Stuart

There are many paths that lead to and from the Veblen House and cottage in Herrontown Woods. Some are literally paths in the woods. Many of those paths had become overgrown until volunteers with the Friends of Herrontown Woods rediscovered and cleared their routes. Others are historical paths--lines of meaning that can be pieced back together through online research of the people who once lived there. There are the buildings themselves, each of which has a story behind it, as yet not fully known, and the Veblens, who left such a profound mark on Princeton and the world.

This story, however, is one of many to tell about the prosperous Whiton-Stuart family that brought the house to Princeton in the 1930s.  The story takes us from the spring waters of south central Tennessee to the highest levels of the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations, and the decades-long efforts of Norman H. Davis to prevent the Second World War.

July 29 this year would be Christine's 112th birthday, Christine being the first wife of Robert Whiton-Stuart, son of the builders and first occupants of what later would become known as the Veblen House.

Like Robert's mother, Mary Marshall Ogden, Christine had southern roots. Christine Paschall Davis was born July 29, 1905 in a town in south central Tennessee called Tullahoma, known for the waters there that bubble generously from the ground. In the 1850s, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad was routed to pass by the springs, so that steam engines could fill up their tenders with the dependable spring water. Tullahoma later served as the headquarters for the Confederate army in Tennessee in 1863. The town's recovery after the Civil War was aided partly by the railroad line, partly by Tullahoma's educational institutions, which were exceptional for the region. It was likely also those educational institutions that brought Christine's future parents together.

Christine's grandfather, McClin H. Davis, had prospered in the distilling business, having perfected the recipe for Cascade Whiskey, later known as George Dickel. Though she spent her summers in Tullahoma, Christine graduated from the Milton Academy, a boarding school in Massachusetts that dates back to 1798. After attending Vassar College and graduating from the Presbyterian Hospital nursing school, she worked for a time at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital on east 64th St.

As with others who figured in the lives of the Whiton-Stuarts, Christine's name acquires more and more significance with time and research. Her ancestry has deep roots in America. One of her father's ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. She's listed in a book as descendent #1144 of Jackson M. Yancey and Elizabeth B. Goode, his wife, though it's not yet clear who Mr. Yancey was, to have had his descendants so well researched. Nor is it yet clear whether the Paschall family of Christine's mother has notable history.

The name Davis, however, is best known through the career of her father Norman Hezekiah Davis, who would play significant roles in the Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt administrations. Before entering public life, Davis was a successful businessman. He briefly ran the distillery business, then took advantage of family connections to do business in Cuba. By 1918, at age 40, he had made a million dollars in Cuban banking and Cuban sugar.

Remarkably, and it's not yet clear what the prompt or precedent might have been, at that young age he retired from business and devoted himself to public service. Serving Wilson as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, then as Undersecretary of State, Davis would become highly involved in seeking peaceful solutions to international tensions in the years between the World Wars. Briefly serving as Wilson's secretary of state, he likely would have gained that position in FDR's administration, if not for his close association with J. Pierpont Morgan. Instead, he served as a close advisor of FDR's secretary of state, and played an often parallel role as FDR's "ambassador at large". Later, FDR appointed Davis the national chairman of the Red Cross during the very demanding years of World War II.

Norman Davis's world view appears prescient, and relevant to our day. He spoke out against harsh economic punishment of nations defeated in WWI, asserting that steep tariffs and other forms of "economic warfare" were as destructive as a conflict of arms. He warned that economic punishment of Germany would cause resentment in that nation. History proved this warning correct, as Hitler later exploited that resentment to gain power. Through the 1920s, Davis criticized isolationist, protectionist policies that sound reminiscent of those being proposed today, almost a century later. The U.S. absence from the League of Nations was as conspicuous back then as the president's departure from the Paris climate accord is today. "America First" was a slogan as current then as now. Davis argued that a policy of independence instead of international cooperation was promoting nationalist tendencies that could lead to another world war. The U.S., he believed, needed to actively exercise its moral and political influence in the world.

Christine and Robert married in 1937, when her father was ambassador-at-large for FDR, and world tensions were escalating. Robert's parents, the Whiton-Stuarts, were living in Princeton at the time, presumably much more buffered from world events. It's not at all clear how Christine and Robert met. The wedding photo appeared in newspapers all across the country, as well as in Life Magazine. They were married at 5pm, March 23, 1937, by Rev. Elmore McKee, rector of St. George's Church at the Davis home on E. 79th St. "Christine will wear the ivory satin gown which her three sisters, Mrs. John Fennelly, Mrs John C. Potter, and Mrs. J Sterling Getchell, wore, and a Juliet cap with a veil. Her flowers will be white narcissi." The rector's church, by the way, was once known as "Morgan's church". J. Pierpont Morgan was its most influential parishioner, to whose company Norman Davis had close ties.

President Roosevelt's mother, the formidable mother-in-law of Eleanor Roosevelt, attended. The marriage date had been pushed forward when Norman Davis was called to Europe for meetings about the growing tensions there.

Perhaps the hasty rescheduling explains why the only attendant to the bride and groom was Lawrence M.C. Smith, as best man. Again, an internet search opens up another world of significance and meaning. Smith and his wife, Eleanor Houston, had an extraordinary life as "collectors, conservationists, environmentalists, farmers, philanthropists, and preservationists." Like the Whiton-Stuarts, they were "old money", their lineage dating back to the days of William Penn. Eleanor's father developed the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia. She was inspired by writer Louis Bromfield's organic farming experiments at Malabar Farm (an important book for me as well, in my formative years), and was on the board of governors for the Nature Conservancy. She and her husband founded a classical radio station in Philadelphia, and raised organic beef on their Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine. Much of the property they acquired, including an island, was later donated for preservation. The Smiths' philosophy--"At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society."--is very much the credo by which the Veblens lived.

Christine's and Robert's marriage lasted less than ten years. Christine died in 1946 in Harkness Pavillion, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, after a long illness.

Her mother, the former Miss Mackie Paschall, had died in 1942, and her father on July 2, 1944--both in their mid-60s. The reasons for early death in the family are not clear. Christine's grandfather, McLinn Davis, had died young, though his work perfecting the taste of whiskey could have had consequences. Norman Davis may have succumbed from the enormous stress of high level public service during the war years, compounded by the death two years earlier of his wife, who was his constant traveling companion. President Roosevelt, in a telegram to the family, said "He had worked far beyond his strength, and indeed was a casualty of war."

At the time of Christine's death, they were living at 1158 Fifth Ave. in New York City, and her husband Robert was described in the obit as "assistant to the president of the George A. Fuller Company, contractors." Their son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, has left no trace on the internet that we have yet to find. Clues for further research come from the obits:
Besides her husband, Mrs. Stuart is survived by a son, Robert P. Whiton Stuart Jr. of New York, three sisters, Mrs. Malcolm Smith of New York, Mrs. John F. Fennelly of Lake Forest, Ill. and Mrs. John Potter of Peterson Farms, Mount Kisco, N.Y. and four brothers, Macklin P. Davis and J. Pascall Davis of Nashville, Tenn., Goode P. Davis of Santa Barbara, Cal., and Norman P. Davis of Chappaqua, N.Y. Funeral services were held Saturday at 2:30p in Georges Chapel, 17th St, and Stuyvesant Square, New York City.
Some themes from this story continue in Robert's subsequent two marriages. From the springs of Tullahoma, where Christine was born, and Hot Springs, where her father Norman Davis went as his health worsened, we'll head north to the cool, curative sulphurous waters of Sharon Springs, NY, which feature prominently in Robert's second marriage. And then there's alcohol, profited by if not directly imbibed. Whereas the whiskey distilling business contributed to the wealth of the Davises, the second family Robert married into achieved its wealth in the brewing business in pre-prohibition NY. Researching his third marriage, we've found another heroic in-law, still alive, devoting many decades not to saving the world from war, but to saving elephants and rhinos from extinction. 

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