My Historic Weekend

Last weekend I had two encounters with the past.

The first was right in my own neighborhood: a walking tour organized by Historic Chevy Chase DC (that would be my neighborhood). Some 15 or 20 of us spent an hour traversing familiar streets under the tutelage of a local real-estate-agent-cum-guide, learning sometimes unfamiliar history.

Chevy Chase, by the way, does not derive its name from the comedian (years ago, when I was in Canada and attempting to pay for a purchase with a credit card issued by Chevy Chase Bank, the sales clerk thought it was a joke: “The comedian has a BANK?”). The origins of the name are somewhat obscure, but it appears to derive from the Cheviot Hills along the border between England and Scotland. “Chase” is an old word for “hunt.”

Anyway … I learned that much of what is now Chevy Chase (a neighborhood that straddles the DC/MD line) was once a plantation belonging to a Colonel Joseph Belt, whose name lives on only in a quiet, lane-like street called Belt Road, which meanders haphazardly through the upper Northwest section of DC. Eventually, shortly after 1900, the land was purchased by the Chevy Chase Land Company, led by a few inside-the-Beltway types—before, of course, there was a Beltway. Their dream was to build an exclusive streetcar suburb (they even paid for the streetcar—Chevy Chase was then way out of town). But an economic downturn slightly derailed the plan, making the place somewhat less exclusive than originally envisioned.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if they went down our street?” I whispered to my husband on the tour. And then lo and behold, our guide not only led us down our street but actually brought the group to a halt in front of our very own house! Did our house have some historical significance that had escaped us, I wondered? Built in 1918, it was a relative latecomer to the area. But maybe someone of note had once inhabited our very rooms? (The astrologer Jeane Dixon did own the house briefly at one point, but I wasn’t sure she’d rate a stop on a walking tour.)

But no, it turns out our house only provided a good vantage point to admire the various architectural styles on display across the street. On the other hand, our BLOCK has some historical significance: one of the structures down the street has the distinction of being the oldest house in Chevy Chase. And the one next door to it sits on the site of Colonel Belt’s original plantation house and incorporates some of the brick from that house in its foundation and chimney. Who knew? To me they were just my neighbors’ houses.

A few years ago there was a drive, led by Historic Chevy Chase DC, to have the whole neighborhood declared a historic district. At first I thought it sounded like a fine idea. After all, I’m a historian! But then, like many others in the neighborhood, I realized that it would mean I’d have to jump through all sorts of hoops just to replace the windows in my house, or redo the paving in my front walk. There was a groundswell of opposition, and the idea died. So now, theoretically, someone could come along and tear down the oldest house in Chevy Chase. On the other hand, it’s a perfectly nice, well-maintained house, so I can only hope that no one will.

The next day—Sunday—found me in Baltimore, the town where I grew up, and which provides the setting for my historical novel-in-very-slow-progress. I’d gone there for brunch with a friend, but as I was driving to Fells Point—one of the older parts of town, and the background for sections of my novel—I passed a sign that said “Carroll Mansion.”

I knew that the Carroll Mansion had been the home of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and—more important from my perspective—the grandfather of four young women who were contemporaries of my main characters. The house, I learned through Google, was open on Saturdays and Sundays until four. It seemed that Fate was calling me to tour it.

But Fate apparently hadn’t notified anyone else: when I showed up, breathless, just in time for the 3 o’clock tour—the last tour of the day, the website warned—I discovered I was the only one there. I was greeted by a young man who took my five dollars and proceeded to show me around.

I don’t know who usually shows up on a Sunday, but they probably don’t have quite the command of Carroll-related factoids that I do. Nor can they generally correct the guide who places the Baltimore Burr riot in 1808 (it actually took place in late 1807). My guide seemed a little taken aback, and then—not realizing that my familiarity with Baltimore history basically begins in mid-1806 and ends in early 1808—assumed that I knew far more than I did. I was actually pretty impressed with the extent of his acquaintance with local lore, especially after he told me that his graduate work had been in Yugoslavian history (apparently when the house re-opened to the public after a hiatus they needed a guide right away, and he was the closest they could come in terms of expertise).

The house itself evoked mixed feelings. On the one hand, there it still stood, a fairly grand early 19th-century structure surrounded by multiple lanes of traffic, and within shouting distance of the urban revival brouhaha of the Inner Harbor. Over the years the building has been used as a saloon, a tenement, a vocational school, and a recreation center, but at least it hasn’t been razed.

On the other hand, the high-ceilinged rooms are pretty bare, adorned by photos showing what they apparently used to look like with period furniture in them. What happened to the furniture, I asked? Turns out it’s at the Maryland Historical Society. Given the less than optimal conditions at the Carroll Mansion—no air conditioning, limited heat in winter, and no humidity control—it’s not the best place to house expensive antiques.

It’s a shame, but understandable: if the Sunday I visited was at all representative, they’re not exactly raking in money from tourists. Charles Carroll may have been the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and perhaps the wealthiest man in the country, but he’s far from a household name these days, even in Maryland.

Would it make more sense to adapt the Carroll Mansion to some other purpose, I wonder—something that would preserve its historic character but, not to put too fine a point on it, bring in more money? Right next door there’s a luxury bed-and-breakfast that bills itself as the “Carrollton Inn,” and charges up to $350 a night. Why shouldn’t the Carroll Mansion itself get a piece of that action? And use the profits to repair the peeling wallpaper?

History is all around us—as was brought home to me Saturday on the walking tour of my neighborhood—but much of the time we’re not aware of it. Sometimes we ignore it because it’s right under our noses, as with my neighbor’s house. And sometimes we ignore it because its historical associations have become obscure, at least to most people, and it’s been nearly buried by modern accretions (I drove right by the Carroll Mansion without noticing it was there and then had to backtrack).

They seem to do this rather better in Europe, as Margaret Dumont said to Groucho Marx of his courting technique. There, history gets woven into the fabric of daily life in a more graceful way—neither obtrusive nor neglected. Give us a few hundred more years, and maybe we’ll get the hang of it.



Celebutantes of the 19th Century

I recently went to a fascinating lecture about the Caton sisters.

Who, I hear you ask? Is that like the Kardashian sisters? Well, yes, kind of.

The Caton sisters were beautiful and wealthy, and basically famous for being famous. They were, if you will, the celebutantes of their time. But–given that their time was the early 19th century–they were way more discreet. And their parents–unlike the parents of Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe–weren’t into alliteration. The Caton girls were named, rather boringly, Mary Ann, Elizabeth (or Betsey), and Louisa. (There was also a fourth one–Emily–but she never made it as a celebutante.)

Before I went to the lecture, almost everything I knew about the Caton sisters was filtered through the letters of the two women I’ve been researching for the past few years, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte and Eliza Anderson Godefroy. All five women grew up in the same elite social circle in late 18th- and early 19th-century Baltimore.

I knew enough to discount much of what Betsy Bonaparte said. Not only did she have a phenomenally venomous tongue, but she clearly saw the Caton girls as her rivals for the title of Belle of Baltimore. Beautiful and wealthy herself, Betsy was the first Baltimore girl to snare a royal title–well, sort of. She married Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803, but her hopes of someday rising to the throne herself (or at least some kind of throne–I imagine a principality would have sufficed) were dashed by Napoleon’s vehement opposition to the marriage, which he had annulled. Imagine Betsy’s anguish when all three of the Caton sisters ended up with titles after marrying into the British aristocracy (including one, Mary Ann, whose first husband had been Betsy’s own brother).

But Betsy’s animosity toward the Catons started even before their famous 1816 trip to England, during which the sisters were feted as “the three Graces.” Shortly before their departure, Betsy was scolded by her friend Eliza Anderson Godefroy for badmouthing Betsey Caton at a New York boarding-house. After swearing Betsy B. to the strictest confidence (for Betsey C. had “charged me not to tell it to you”), Eliza reported the gossip retailed by two gentlemen in New York who were Betsy C.’s “devoted lovers.” According to them, Eliza told Betsy B., “at a public dinner at the Boarding House you abused her in the blackest & most infamous manner, & that they made it a point to tell her to put her on her Guard against you_ I told her I did not believe a word of it & that they must be dirty Fellows indeed who would take such a business upon their hands.”

Eliza pleaded with Betsy B. “not to open her lips” about Betsey C. in the future (so, despite her protestations, she obviously DID believe the report). Perhaps Betsy B. grew more discreet, but her hatred of the sisters continued to burn with a hard, gem-like flame. In her later years, Betsy B. apparently spent many hours going through her voluminous correspondence and annotating it, just for fun. In 1867–fifty years after Eliza wrote her that letter about the New York boarding house–she wrote on the bottom, “From Mrs. Anderson Godefroy about my old Enemies the Catons who hated & injured me in Europe in 1816 & were, out of the Patterson father & sons Robert John Joseph & Edward, the most pernicious foes of my life.” (The Patterson men referred to were Betsy’s own father and brothers, so you get some sense here of what her relationship with her own family was like. But that’s another story.)

I trusted Eliza’s observations a bit more, but she was ambiguous on the subject of the Catons, especially Betsey. In that 1816 letter to Betsy B., Eliza seems to be endorsing her friend’s own dim view of the Caton girl: “No matter what she may be,” she tells Betsy B., “you cannot but injure yourself by speaking of her. .. she will always make herself appear the unresisting victim to your unmerited dislike.”

But maybe Eliza was only saying what she knew Betsy B. would want to hear. Many years later–when Betsey Caton finally snared a titled husband at the age of 45–Eliza reminisced about her with considerably more warmth. “Betsey Caton had more heart and more head than all the rest of the family put together,” she told a correspondent on hearing of the marriage. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the rest of the clan, but still pretty favorable to Betsey.

Right after she says that, though, Eliza goes on to say: “… but nothing so wastes the heart, so deteriorates all elevation of mind, as the system of coquetry she and her sisters were taught to practice almost from their cradles. It has however succeeded perfectly well with them, for the end of life is to obtain the object of our Soul’s ambition, and rank and title was theirs.”

The lecture I went to–which was given by Mary Jeske at the Maryland Historical Society–provided a more complete portrait of these three women. They certainly don’t seem to have been the demons Betsy Bonaparte thought they were. On the other hand, Eliza’s judgment that rank and title were their “Soul’s ambition” may well have been correct (they certainly were Betsy B’s!). Such an objective may seem strange to us, in this day and age, but in the early 19th century an excellent marriage was the highest ambition that most women could aspire to. And on those terms, the Caton sisters succeeded spectacularly.

Before the lecture, I found the Caton sisters’ story reminiscent of all those tales about impoverished British landed gentry marrying American heiresses for their money–the most recent version being the addictive PBS series “Downtown Abbey.” But as I discovered, the Caton girls actually didn’t have any money–not of their own. Their grandfather, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) was indeed fabulously wealthy. But the sisters weren’t able to get a piece of that until Carroll died. And he lived to be 95, which was almost unheard of in those days.

After the first Caton sister married in 1817–not to an aristocrat, yet–it was rumored that her husband was shocked to discover, after the marriage, that she had no fortune. One of Betsy B.’s London correspondents wrote to tell her that no one was going to make THAT mistake again. No one, he said, would be taking Betsey Caton to the altar “unless the money is first paid down, or put into a Train that it will be forthcoming.”

It’s enough to make you feel sorry for Betsey Caton, whatever her ambition was in life. And it’s quite a tribute to the Caton sisters that they all managed to marry aristocrats–at least one of them, indeed, impoverished–even AFTER everyone knew they had no money. Can the Kardashians top that accomplishment?