- Historic Sites
A Fascination With The Common Place
The vast jumble of objects that once brought solace to an eccentric heiress has become a great museum of the middle class
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
Young Margaret, too, was expected to shop and tour and sketch what she saw. In the scrapbook she kept of “my trip around the world” in 1907–1908, the ten-year-old traveler drew pictures of the furnishings of a Hong Kong hotel that would not have shamed a veteran antiques dealer, so keen was her eye for ornamental detail. Thrust into the company of middle-aged idlers, she took a keen interest in middle-aged hobbies. “On deck, Mr. George showed us his book of snuff bottles. All 616 pictures were colored,” she noted in her diary aboard the SS Siberia , outward bound for Japan. In hotel lobbies from Bath to Honolulu to White Sulphur Springs, little Margaret would approach lounging strangers and ask if they knew any riddles. These she would record in two calendar books, one for the questions, the other for the answers. She was a grave and methodical little girl.
Without intending to, Mrs. Strong set historians, scholars, and curators a huge challenge.
Margaret Strong’s only bright moments came from her memories of the distant past.
“You would say I was almost the third adult in the family, wouldn’t you,” Mrs. Strong once remarked in her brusque, cutting way. And it was true. Her middle-aged parents were her chief companions and school merely an intermittent resting place between Woodbury trips. So intermittent that Margaret never completed a high school education. Getting along with equals was a burden she never had to shoulder. Turning strangers into friends was a challenge she never had to meet. Her diaries served as her confidants, and scrapbooks filled with cutout pictures of Brownies, Kewpie Dolls, and Kate Greenaway’s fictional characters supplied her with fanciful playmates. She lavished affection on her dolls and loved to set them out, she once recalled, on the windowsill of her bedroom. When people passed by, she would rap sharply on the window to attract their attention to the pretty little figures, as if the dolls were her public self. The “third adult” in the Woodbury trio never learned how to make a friend and was never in her life to have one.
In 1915 Margaret had her coming-out party at the Country Club of Rochester (“Wore silver slippers. Hair combed high. 23 girls and 31 boys attended”), but in a sense she never “came out.” Her constant escort was an unsuccessful lawyer more than twice her age who bore a marked resemblance to her father. Although Homer Strong was scarcely an ideal match for a bright young heiress, the Woodburys encouraged his suit, perhaps because the meek, middle-aged rosefancier promised to minimize the disruptive effects of marriage on the close-knit Woodbury trio. The Woodburys’ present to the newlyweds (short, plain-faced bride of twenty-three and a tall, handsome groom of forty-five) was a fine house in a newly fashionable section of Rochester. The Woodburys built a house just in back of it. Until her death in 1933, the domineering Mrs. Woodbury would stride across each morning to arrange her daughter’s day.
The principal features of Margaret’s day were a baby daughter born in 1921, who was to grow up a wretchedly unhappy woman, and golf, which Margaret played with such skill and competitive zeal that she became one of the best woman golfers in western New York. She excelled, too, at archery, bowling, bridge, gardening, and competitive flower arranging. Margaret Woodbury Strong was good at everything except living.
When her father died in 1937, she bought an Italian Renaissance palace in the rural suburb of Pittsford, and the Strongs began to live more and more to themselves. Their only child was lost to them. A rebellious product of the radical 1930s, she despised her parents as capitalists, spurned their gifts, and deliberately dressed as shabbily as possible. Was it to regain the heart of her hate-ridden daughter that Margaret Strong, too, began to dress “like a charwoman” in cheap, cotton housedresses? If so, she failed. At twenty-one Barbara Strong married badly, drank heavily, and began deteriorating rapidly until a rare liver ailment cut short her shattered life at the age of twenty-five.
Four years later, in 1950, Homer Strong sank into hopeless senility, and Margaret, a rich, vigorous woman of fiftythree, found herself alone with a seventy-five-year-old husband who wandered the grounds at night raking leaves and setting fires. For Margaret Strong every prospect seemed hopeless; her only bright moments came with memories of the distant past. “I wish I could go back to 1920 and live my life over,” she once confessed. “I was so wildly happy up until then, but somehow, after that, my life changed.” In 1958 Homer Strong died, severing Mrs. Strong’s last link to the present.