The Bad, The Powerful, and The Beautiful

At lunch a few weeks ago, Paula Scher asked me if I had any criminals in my family history. The British considered most of them criminals and traitors during the revolutionary war. During the Civil War, some ended up in Union prisons. The most notorious family member was Lewis Thornton Powell, a distant cousin (we have common ancestors on the Lewis, Thornton, Powell, and Harrison lines). Powell was convicted and hanged with the other conspirators in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Otherwise, the family scandals or rumors of unorthodox behavior were of a romantic nature.

William Christian Bullitt married the noted communist and ex-wife of John Reed, Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton in Reds). She slowly went mad, had an affair with Gwen Le Gallienne and died alone in Paris. Amelie Rives Chanler Troubetzkoy divorced her first husband; Astor heir Archie Armstrong Chanler, then married Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy. Troubetzkoy was described by the women of New York and Newport society as “a fine specimen of a man.” Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's true love from 1915 until his death in 1945. She was with him the day he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia.

The most controversial story is about the nature of cousin Joshua Fry Speed’s relationship with President Lincoln. If nobody ever discussed Lucy Mercer and FDR at dinner, you can imagine that the Lincoln and Speed issue was never mentioned. The facts are these: Lincoln moved to Springfield, Illinois as a young attorney. Upon his arrival, he went to Speed’s store to inquire about a room. Speed suggested Lincoln stay with him, as he had a large bed. Lincoln moved in and they lived together for seven years. Speed eventually returned to the family plantation, Farmington, in Kentucky to marry Fannie Henning. Lincoln had a nervous breakdown and went to Farmington to recover. He then returned to Springfield and married Mary Todd. Speed and Lincoln remained best friends, although a cooling occurred during the civil war. Speed was a southern Democrat and opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. He made many confidential trips to Washington to visit Lincoln, and saw him two weeks before the assassination (refer to Lewis Thornton Powell above—see how convoluted this all is). Speed’s brother, James served on as Attorney General in Lincoln’s administration.

Now whether this friendship was platonic or more isn’t particularly important to me. Who knows? Who cares? What matters to me is that this is now an interesting anecdote to be told at cocktail parties.