- Historic Sites
Isaac Singer And His Wonderful Sewing Machine
An erratic genius and his sober-sided partner made their product a household necessity and built fortunes which their numerous progeny have spent in ways both beneficent and bizarre
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
The chief recalcitrant was Mary Ann Sponsler Foster. She had embittered Singer’s life and blackened his name. Her own children—save one, John Albert Singer—had turned against her. She had struck a deal with Isaac but concealed from him her violation of it. Now she insisted on $1,000,000, rejected any smaller settlement, and required that her suit be brought in the surrogate’s court of Westchester County. In a courtroom crowded with fashionably dressed, scandalminded onlookers, Mary Ann was her own worst witness. Her attorneys were hard put to find witnesses who would support her, even from among her own children. Only Orson Phelps stepped forward, a figure out of the past, to prate of how, a quarter century before, Singer had spent more time reciting Shakespeare than working on his own invention. At length Mary Ann accepted $75,000, in return renouncing all claims.
The subsequent careers of many of Singer’s children recalled the gaudy ways of their progenitor. Of the 22 who survived him, all but six had issue, and they contracted among them 35 marriages. One daughter married Prince Edmond de Polignac and was a friend of Marcel Proust; her musicales were celebrated events in Paris, and when she died she left behind a fund, administered by the Fondation Singer-Polignac , to give grants-in-aid to talented artists, musicians, and scientists. Another daughter married the downstart son of an impoverished southern banker, passed her middle years storming the aristocratic citadels of Newport, and retired to the Riviera, where, her husband having died, she engaged a succession of handsome chauffeurs and eventually dwindled away into a Noel Coward joke.
The true throwback among the Singer children was Paris, who died in 1932 but was immortalized in Isadora Duncan’s memoirs as her lover (she called him Lohengrin). Paris inherited his father’s splendid stature (6′4″), his father’s vitality and animal magnetism, a generous slice of his father’s fortune (worth, at Paris’ majority, perhaps $15,000,000), and his father’s faculty for invention (an electric organ and an internal-combustion engine). He was also capable of the grand gesture. Thus, he paid out $200,000 for an option on the old Madison Square Garden as a gift to Isadora Duncan; but when she was not properly appreciative, he allowed the option to lapse and let the $200,000 gurgle down the drain. When they parted in an emotional thunderstorm, Paris consoled himself by staking Addison Mizner as architect of Palm Beach and by himself becoming that resort’s arbiter elegantiae ; the dissolution of his Florida dreams reduced him to sailing up and down the Nile on chartered dahabeahs.
Thanks to their elders, Singer’s grandchildren (there were at least 54) had far less money to spend, and they spent or invested it far more primly—albeit not colorlessly. One shot wild animals in the African veld; one built an unimportant railroad; one made a hobby of attending National Amateur Golf Championships (“It brings out the best in me,” asserted Mortimer Singer, Jr.); one married a showgirl who, according to Ziegfeld, had the most beautiful legs in the world; one married a broker, and her child, grown to man’s estate, in 1922 plunked down a substantial sum of money to back Time , then still a struggling infant of a news magazine; one, dying in London, left her will so well hidden that a spiritualist who undertook to locate it by means of its emanations swooned from the strain as he left her premises; one retired as a nun into a French convent.
It is difficult, in surveying this assorted brood, to find a clue to a final judgment of their sire. What was Isaac Singer? Was he merely a Casanova? Was he a Don Juan in the Mozartian sense—a rebel, unscrupulously at war with every convention? Or was he simply an amoral and energetic hooligan blessed with a useful mechanical aptitude?
That there were many women in his life there can be no doubt. That most of them were genuinely fond of him is manifest, and it is the rawest of ironies that, in attempting to assess Singer, we must depend almost entirely on the evidence of the one woman who came to hate him. For the only detailed account of his private life is to be found in the divorce proceedings brought against him by Mary Ann Sponsler. She may be said to have been amply avenged for any hurts he gave her; thanks to her, posterity’s picture of Singer is that of a blackguard. Yet surely her account was not disinterested.
A less prejudiced witness might have concluded that Singer, while he was not the most punctilious of men, must have been, more often than not, a charming, likeable vulgarian, bubbling over with animal spirits, with a voracious appetite for life and a ready, if rough, talent for savoring all its delights. And quite apart from what he bequeathed to his children, he gave the world a most useful appliance indeed, the more appropriate since it was the girt of a man who, to put it moderately, must have been aware of the toil necessary to raise and clothe a large family.