The Realms Of Gould

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The Goulds first came to Lyndhurst in the summer of 1878, when they leased it for the season from Mr. Merritt’s widow. The year before had been one of the darker and more turbulent years in what now seems that long and complacent era of supposedly inevitable cycles of boom or bust from which the American economy did not emerge until after the Great Depression of the 1930’s. A majority of the hastily built and overexpanded railroads were in bankruptcy, and two thirds of the iron mills lay idle. Workers and their families were starving and destitute. Despair and misery bred anarchists and agitators, violence and bloodshed. But for Jay Gould, the cool and crafty market operator, it was a year of immensely profitable short sales and a feast of securities bought at bargain prices. It was also, for one who took a wry pride in acknowledging himself to be “the most hated man in America,” a time of physical danger and of fear for the safety of his family. Lyndhurst, with its thick marble walls, its turrets and battlements, had a comforting air of impregnable security—especially after Gould realistically reinforced it with an around-the-clock patrol of armed guards.

There was no market for Lyndhurst in 1878. The new crop of parvenus preferred to build new houses in a more opulent style, with better plumbing. Socially, the lower Hudson Valley was becoming a stagnant backwater for the less fashionable. Mr. Merritt, in his brief reign, had expanded Lyndhurst beyond the needs of his widow and children. Like the overextended railroads upon which Gould preyed, it was another bargain to be devoured. In l88ojay Gould acquired full title to Lyndhurst and its broad domain of 550 acres for what even then was the rather miserable sum of $250,000.

Lyndhurst was a happy choice for the Goulds. As important as security from cranks and embittered speculators was the security it gave Mrs. Gould and the children from the snubs and rebuffs of the New York elite, and the even less palatable disdain of dedicated social climbers, to all of which Gould himself was impervious. His personal indifference to social aspiration undoubtedly added to the suspicion and distrust with which he has always been regarded. Mrs. Gould’s own modest social ambitions were at least partially mollified by invitations to the tea parties and garden fetes of the local aristocracy. For the children—George Jay, sixteen; Edwin, fourteen; Helen, twelve; Howard, nine; Anna, five; and Frank Jay, three—Lyndhurst was a fairy-tale castle of endless delights. For their father it was a haven from the jungles of finance, where he could find the solitude he seemed to crave, tending his beloved orchids or brooding over his books. As his daughter Helen said years later, “He was a terribly silent man …” and the Gothic shadows of Lyndhurst suited him well.

The years from 1880 to 1886 were good years for the Goulds and for Lyndhurst. Gould was no longer a mere stock-market operator. After titanic struggles he had gained operating control of the entire elevated railway system of New York City and of the Western Union Telegraph Company, and had become the overlord of nearly ten thousand miles of railroad right of way. Jay Gould was one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, and one of the most unobtrusive. Life at Lyndhurst did not change. Mr. Gould commuted to work on his steam yacht, Atalanta , one of his few luxuries, with neighbors such as Cyrus Field or Chauncey Depew occasionally hitching a ride. Mrs. Gould had her domestic duties and her garden club affairs, but there were few notable social occasions at Lyndhurst. It was the children who were the life of the house during these happy years, and if they had been able to foresee the future, they might have wished to stay young forever in their enchanted castle. It may be that the Lyndhursts of this world are really meant only for children of all ages who never grow up. But, in the early evening of September 14, 1886, whatever magic spell Lyndhurst possessed for the Goulds was broken by one of those events that now seem absurd but that were catastrophic to family life in the Victorian era.

The following morning the New Tork Times devoted the place of honor on its front page to what its headlines described as “ A QUIET CEREMONY IN THE PATERNAL HALL AT IRVINGTON, AND NONE BUT RELATIVES PRESENT .” The quiet ceremony was the marriage of George Jay Gould, now twenty-two, pride of his father and idol of his mother, to Miss Edith Kingdon of Brooklyn. The paternal hall was Lyndhurst. Miss Kingdon, from all accounts, was an eminently respectable young lady, but, alas, she was an actress, and Mrs. Gould would never recover from the shock. For weeks afterward, she would break into fits of weeping. “Oh Alice, why has this happened,” she would sob, a niece who was present on one of these mournful occasions remembered. “Just to think of it, George married to an actress! What next? How do we know that Helen won’t fall in love with a coachman?”