Electra Webb And Her American Past

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Electra Havemeyer’s marriage in 1910 proved a second crucial step in the ultimate creation of the Shelburne Museum. It bound the New York-bred heiress to northern Vermont, rural New England at its most harsh and laborious. Electra’s choice of a husband was possibly no more to her mother’s liking than her eccentric view of art. J. Watson Webb, aged twenty-four, was a handsome young man, a well-bred young man, and the son of Commodore Vanderbilt’s granddaughter LiIa. He had summered in a 110-room house near Shelburne, where his father, Dr. W. Seward Webb, maintained (largely at his Vanderbilt wife’s expense) the largest hackney breeding stud farm in America, a horse barn the size of Madison Square Garden, the first private golf course to be built in America, and a coach house for his carriages that looked like a castle on the Rhine. Electra’s chosen mate, however, had a few definite drawbacks from the Louisine Havemeyer viewpoint. He cared nothing for art, had no money of his own as yet, and was determined to lead a sporting life of the most extravagantly costly kind. J. Watson Webb loved riding to hounds in Vermont, hunting moose in Alaska, shooting grouse in Scotland and quail in South Carolina, and fishing for salmon in Quebec. Above all, he loved playing polo, and by the early 1920's he was one of the greatest players in the world.

By then Electra was the mother of five children, the mistress of an estate at Shelburne, a still larger estate at Westbury, Long Island, polo capital of America, and a seventeen-room apartment on Park Avenue. She was, as her son J. Watson Webb, Jr., remarked to me, “a devoted polo wife,” meaning that she spent long, hot afternoons watching her husband and his colleagues galloping their costly ponies to exhaustion and her evenings attending—and giving—formal dinner parties for twenty or thirty polo-playing couples.

 

Given the polo round, the three luxurious homes, the annual hunting and shooting trips, Electra Havemeyer Webb could scarcely be said to be living anything remotely resembling the common life. Nevertheless, her original love of the common people’s rude art remained undiminished. According to her son, Watson, her mode of life probably strengthened it. Nothing, he said only half-jokingly, was better calculated to reinforce a feeling for simplicity than the gross opulence displayed by his mother’s Vanderbilt in-laws.

In any event, “I kept on collecting,” Mrs. Webb recalled two years before her death in 1960. “I filled a house … with collections, and my attic, of course, was a wonderful place. The sculpture increased over at the indoor tennis court, and as the children grew up, and somebody would ask for me, they would say, ‘Oh mother is over in the tennis court building with her junk.’ ” Her son-in-law Dunbar Bostwick still recalls the hazards of chasing a deep lob at that tennis court; you were in danger of breaking a leg tripping over a sidelined carrousel horse.

As early as 1929, the year her mother died, Electra thought of putting the overflow from her collecting on some sort of public display. She would restore some old house in Shelburne and turn it into a little admission-free museum of folk art. Modest though this idea was, it took seventeen years before Mrs. Webb got around to buying the house. Such timidity seemed so at odds with her firm character that I asked everyone who knew her if they could think of a reason for it. In part, I was told, Mrs. Webb worried about her ignorance. Despite all the years of collecting—"It’s like being an alcoholic,” she once remarked—she knew little in a scholarly way about what she owned. She had followed her intuition, which is all very well while outfitting a home but quite another when your intuitions are on public display to be judged and perhaps mocked by erudite critics—”antiquies” as Mr. Webb used to call them with undisguised contempt. Indeed, according to J. Watson Webb, Jr., it was his father, the aging ex-polo star, who probably made his mother so timid at the start. A scornful, hard-bitten man, “he intimidated her about how she spent her own money,” said Watson, and folk art to Mr. Webb was a waste of it.