From The Editors: One for the Books
About the time in 1912 that Boston pharmaceutical tycoon and philanthropist George Robert White completed renovating what now is known as the Wyck Estate, the French château–style mansion on the North Shore of Massachusetts that is among Robb Report’s “21 Ultimate Gifts” , Philadelphia society members George Dunton Widener and his wife, Eleanor, were finalizing plans for a summer home about 100 miles to the south, in Newport, R.I. The villa, which would be named Miramar, was to be constructed on nearly eight acres of oceanfront property along Bellevue Avenue, now commonly referred to as Newport’s Mansion Row for its many Gilded Age estates.
Miramar recently was for sale, through an auction that began in September and concluded in early November (after the magazine went to press). Assuming the house sold, one hopes that fate treats the new owner better than it did members of the Widener family.
George was the son of Peter Arrell Brown Widener, a onetime butcher who made his fortune by investing in streetcars. Peter also sat on the boards of directors for U.S. Steel and the American Tobacco Co., and he held shares in the company that owned the Titanic.
George and Eleanor had three children: George Jr., Eleanor, and Harry, a noted bibliophile who is the namesake for Harvard University’s Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. The library’s 3 million volumes include 3,500 books from Harry’s collection. Among those are a Gutenberg Bible and a Shakespeare first folio. However, the library does not have another of Harry’s most prized possessions, a 1598 edition of Sir Francis Bacon’s Essayes; that book was lost.
The Widener library, a Beaux Arts brick building that opened in 1915, was designed by Horace Trumbauer & Associates, the same Philadelphia architectural firm that had designed Miramar. The Newport property’s last owner, real estate developer Andrew Panteleakis, was hoping the estate would fetch a bid of at least $10 million during the recent auction. When Panteleakis acquired Miramar in 1971, from a family that had converted it into a private school for girls, he paid $118,000. The school owners had bought the estate in 1964 for $75,000 from the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, which had accepted it as a donation from Harry’s brother and sister, George Jr. and Eleanor, and employed it as a retreat and conference center.
In 1956, the Widener siblings inherited Miramar from Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice, a surgeon, a professor of geography at Harvard, an explorer, and their mother’s second husband. Before her death in 1937, of a heart attack while shopping in Paris, the elder Eleanor and Rice traveled extensively to South America, India, and Europe. It was reported that in 1920, while navigating the Amazon, their party warded off an attack by cannibals, killing two. However, that ordeal was not Eleanor’s most harrowing travel experience.
Dr. and Mrs. Rice officially opened Miramar in the summer of 1915 with a ball attended by 500 members of society. They had met only a short time earlier, that June at the Widener library dedication ceremony in Harvard Yard. Harry, a Harvard graduate who was 27 years old in 1912, had intended to give his book collection to his alma mater, once it built a suitable library. In May of that year, his mother donated $3.5 million to construct such a structure. Years later, there emerged an erroneous story that, because of Harry, the donation came with the stipulation that all Harvard students had to pass a swim test before they could graduate.
Harry sailed with his mother and father to London in March 1912. His parents went there to buy a trousseau for their daughter’s upcoming wedding, and Harry took the opportunity to visit the city’s booksellers and shop for rarities. He sent most of the books he acquired back to Philadelphia in early April, aboard the liner Carpathia. However, he did not ship Bacon’s Essayes, a small volume that he also bought while in London. The family was going to return to the United States later that month, and Harry intended to bring the book back himself.
Indeed, Harry reportedly said to Eleanor, “Mother, I have just placed the little Bacon in my pocket; the little Bacon goes with me.” He said this as he and his father were helping Eleanor and her maid into a lifeboat, from which they would be rescued by Carpathia. Then father and son, members of the Gilded Age aristocracy who were truly noble men, remained on board while other passengers, mostly women and children, filled the remaining lifeboats that launched from the decks of the Titanic.