A Gilded Age Romance
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012
The portrait is startling. Painted by John Singer Sargent, “Mr. and Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes” depicts a woman dressed casually, almost masculinely, save a voluminous white skirt. Her hand is held brazenly at her hip as her presence nearly obscures that of her husband, who hovers in the background like a specter. They are Edith and Newton Stokes.
As biographer Jean Zimmerman details in her excellent duel biography of the couple, entitled Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). “Both were progressives, and both believed in doing great deeds, whether it was reforming tenements in Newton’s case or getting the vote for women in Edith’s. They fell in love when they were children, a love that lasted until they were parted by death.”
Edith eventually became President of the New York Kindergarten Association and of the Municipal Art Commission. Newton spent over a decade laboring on a six-volume history of the city entitled the Iconography of Manhattan.
They were a couple defined by the city. Writes Zimmerman: “Edith and Newton were New York City to the bone. He, raised in an Italianate residence at Madison Avenue and 37th Street, which after his time there would become J. P. Morgans townhouse and then a celebrated museum of the arts. She, born a little farther afield, in still countrified Staten Island. They were in love and in Manhattan, which represents an unparalleled state of bliss. They led not so much independent as interdependent lives.”
Love, Fiercely provides a fascinating and rich perspective on the rise of New York, the tensions of Gilded Age courtship, the evolving freedoms of women, and the shifting dynamics of a long marriage.