It happened like this—in many respects an old tale, with nothing original to recommend it. A society man was caught cheating on his wife, and now, his blackmailers agreed, he would have to pay.
Emily Price Post, the adulterer’s wife, was furious. Shocking even herself, for the briefest of moments the usually even-tempered young matron yearned for revenge. Against her spouse, his lover, the blackmailers, and society: anyone who had contributed to this pain. Still in love with her husband, the thirty-two-year-old woman had long ago given up hope that he felt the same about her. She had made peace with her private anguish. What she had not anticipated was public humiliation.
During the hottest days that summer of 1905, the aftermath of Edwin Post’s betrayal played out daily on the front pages of New York City’s newspapers. Such flamboyant publicity bolstered Edwin’s damaged self-image even as it shriveled his wife’s. Now Emily wore, to those few who knew her well, an aura of sadness only emphasized by her husband’s exuberance.
Edwin’s friends had warned him to be discreet, but he had ignored them, sure, as usual, that he knew best. By late April 1905 the cocky thirty-five-year-old stockbroker had become careless about how he conducted his affairs with chorus girls and fledgling actresses. So in the middle of June, when one of them whined, mistaking his attentions for relationship collateral, he made a fatal misstep. He reacted callously, warning her to vacate the Connecticut cottage he kept for such intrigues: she bored him.
Within days of toasting his new freedom from the starlet he had suddenly found cloying, Edwin received a call from a representative of Colonel William D’Alton Mann, publisher of the articulate gossip sheet Town Topics. Mann, already embarked on this summer’s vacation abroad, had left his business in the hands of Charles H. Ahle, his second-in-command. The officious Ahle suggested that he and Edwin Post meet—soon. On June 25 Ahle visited Post, who was unceremoniously instructed to ante up the cash or be exposed to scandal: Town Topics was about to go public with some juicy news of certain interest to Edwin. Luckily, Colonel Mann had left instructions to suppress this gossip if Post subscribed to a vanity book to be printed sometime in the distant future. Five hundred dollars would neatly cover the costs for Post’s copy. He should be grateful, Ahle added unctuously; some other men—more important than Post—had been taxed a far greater amount for the same “project.”
Thus it was that Edwin Post joined the Gilded Age prey, a group of select men (and several women) stalked by the redoubtable publisher. Colonel Mann abhorred what he considered the duplicity of society. He took immense satisfaction in supplementing his own income at the expense of a careless millionaire’s misalliance. The jovial Civil War hero, a suave, condescending, robust Santa Claus, mixed in his complicated person two sometimes contrary impulses. He was a true believer—no sloppy grammar or careless vernacular would be published under his masthead. But he was also a cynical extortionist, impatient with public figures so inane that they discarded their private lives for a night of pleasure.
This hypocritical reformer had become an object of dread among the city’s most prominent citizens: J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, William K. Vanderbilt, and William C. Whitney. His method was simple: hire aggrieved servants, disgruntled friends, or a furious spouse to spy on suspects. Then bully those miscreants into paying for a “subscription” to a mostly phantom, wildly expensive illustrated book about leaders of society. Various prices were assessed for each victim, with an eye to what the sinner could afford. What could be easier than such a scam, in the shadow of the Victorian mores that still darkened the resplendent Gilded Age? Money and fevered morality, a glorious mix for a con artist with ethics like Mann’s.
Pleading a shortage of money, Edwin bought some time to consider his options. Two days later, Ahle came looking for him again. The wayward husband bargained with Mann’s representative. “Give me a little more time and I’ll get you the money,” he pleaded, adding, “please don’t publish the article on Friday”—the usual pattern for expensive gossip sponsored by Town Topics.
Here the truth becomes a matter of conjecture. The official line, constructed by Emily years later, maintained that the victim was unable to produce the $500 “fee” for the vanity book (worth about $5,000 in today’s currency)—his extensive costs of paying for a mistress aside. Before divulging the news to his wife, Edwin had first sought advice from the couple’s mutual ally, prominent society lawyer Phoenix Ingraham (whom Edwin knew to be smitten with Emily). Predictably, their friend had insisted that she be brought into the discussion, whereupon Emily immediately agreed to help bring down this corrupt operation that had netted so many of their friends. There was no question: the Posts should not pay off the bribe. The prospect of a public spectacle, with her husband its sacrificial lamb and she herself the object of prurient gossip, supposedly failed to discourage the always decorous Emily Price Post.
Throughout the years, Emily would contend that the couple’s private discussions had centered upon Edwin’s lack of money as well as their mutual determination to end the insidious blackmail of their friends. But such a grand explanation allowed Emily to displace her husband’s painful, real weakness: his inability or, even worse, his unwillingness to protect his wife from scandal.
The week following July 11, 1905, both the New York Times and the New York Tribune sustained a running commentary on the sting. “Stockbroker’s Way of Dealing with Bribe Offer” trumpeted the Tribune’s front page. Edwin Post, the article continued, was a partner in a brokerage firm and lived—in the summers—with his wife and children in Tuxedo Park. A terse sentence followed: “[Post’s] action in the case was taken on the advice of Mrs. Post.” The Baltimore Sun, Emily’s hometown paper, ran a short front-page article on the affair, failing to mention that the betrayed wife was the daughter of their famous homegrown architect, whom, till then, the city had proudly claimed as its own any chance it got. However briefly, Edwin Post was finally at the center of Emily’s life.
She never forgave him.
He knew he’d struck gold when she tried so hard to impress him, stifling her girlish giggles and self-consciously checking her slight slouch. A fetching enough sixteen-year-old from the Pennsylvania countryside, she had been turned out by Baltimore’s best finishing school, polished with the high patina of shiny anthracite coal. Josephine Lee won Bruce Price’s loyalty, if never quite his heart, within minutes of their meeting at a debutante ball in the winter season of 1869.
Young Bruce, an aspiring architect, was undeniably looking to marry money, and Josephine’s father, Washington Lee, possessed a postwar fortune in want of spending. The Lees were no anomaly: one of Lee’s railroad compeers demonstrated his recent profits, in 1865, by throwing what was the most lavish party in memory. The menus were lettered in gold, the dining room “smothered in rarest flowers.” Each of the host’s guests was presented with a silk cushion embroidered with his name. The wines cost $25 a bottle, the prestigious singers were paid $1,000 for two songs, and the final bill for the extravaganza totaled $20,000 (almost $3 million today), to bravos all around.
Emily Bruce Price, Washington Lee’s granddaughter, would be a daddy’s girl throughout her long life. She unabashedly bragged about her devotion: to Emily, Bruce Price was a giant among men. At six feet, two inches, the architect whose charms were legendary came of age at the end of the Civil War, but he would have stood out in any era. Handsome, naturally convivial, confident, generous: it is easy to understand his daughter’s lifelong infatuation. Her adoration, in the end, merely echoed that of Bruce Price’s many friends and relatives, who, after being with him for five minutes, seemed convinced they’d made contact with something significant. His niece, a countess by marriage, still recalled, almost fifty years after his death, Bruce Price’s “outstanding personal beauty and personal charm” and his “unpretentious confidence in himself.” “Everyone” revered him, she said. Emily worshipped him.
Born in Cumberland, Maryland, at the end of 1845, Bruce Price had arrived a week and a half too early to be the Christmas baby his parents had anticipated. What would become his trademark of nearly obsessive punctuality stamped his earliest days. The boy, one of an eventual seven brothers and sisters, spent most of his childhood in Baltimore. Hugging the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s third-largest city enjoyed a seventy-mile buffer from the Atlantic, a distinction only one other major American port, Philadelphia, could claim. The location was ripe for a transportation liaison, which the railroad barons of the nineteenth century would pursue with relish, even when slaves were needed to turn dreams into reality.
William Price, Bruce’s father—“eccentric,” sniped some who didn’t understand him—was an important lawyer in Baltimore during the turbulent 1860s. A restless man, Price graduated from college eager to leave the outskirts of Washington County in favor of the more prosperous legal garrets of Cumberland. There he met and quickly wed Marion Bruce, a Scottish lass who could minister to his practical side. Their obligatory Episcopal ceremony reflected no particular religious convictions on the part of either bride or groom.
Marion herself boasted a family renowned for its small-town achievements: she was the granddaughter of the first president of Cumberland’s First National Bank and the niece of Allegheny County’s first circuit court judge. She was even prouder to inform her already convinced suitor that her father, a Scotsman who had settled in the region twenty or thirty years earlier, was a first cousin to Francis Scott Key.
The agility of a Renaissance lawyer like Price (who would write a novel and build his own house) was in short supply at the time. Still in his twenties and fresh from school, he was elected a member of the Maryland State Senate in 1825. William Price enjoyed debating hard questions. Perhaps inevitably, many considered the complex man a contrarian. His moral allegiance was to the North, but his heart never deserted Dixie.
The lawyer came honestly by his often eccentric ways of doing things. After William’s father died, you could practically hear the townspeople gasp at the idiosyncratic terms of Josiah Price’s will. Josiah left behind a creative document; everyone agreed on that. He had bequeathed his four sons a choice: to attend college or to own real estate. Either/or. William, along with his older brother, chose an education. William’s granddaughter Emily, who loved recounting the story, would always emphasize the proper decision her shrewd grandfather made: through his canny judgment, he got it all. The two brothers who chose property died early, their misfortune ensuring that William Price and his favorite brother, Benjamin, acquired both the land and the academic degrees.
Without a doubt, wealth and education proved a vigorous coupling. In the 1830s, William parlayed his inheritance into a law firm in nearby Hagerstown, Maryland. In spite of Price’s somewhat confusing persona as an erratic gentleman farmer, the man’s intellectual dexterity as he nurtured social connections led him quickly to become one of the lawyers sought out by the local powers. He knew about the art of doing people favors—sometimes just from kindness, but often out of expedience.
This was the lay of the land that would shape Emily Price’s father, William’s talented son Bruce. This was a family that believed in passing down its wisdom along with its genes. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when Bruce was two or three years old, William moved his family from Hagerstown to Baltimore. They lived at 27 Washington Street, across from a severe, newly constructed Greek Revival library. Inspired by the chance to enhance the aesthetic harmony in his still raw neighborhood, William Price, though untrained in the arts, designed his family’s house to harmonize with the library. The self-taught architect created a one-story Greek Revival building whose enormous wide hallway ran through the entire house to the rear garden door. It takes no great leap of imagination to connect William’s mildly chaotic vision with the bold design that informed Bruce Price’s Gilded Age aesthetic. Or the panoramic view of the machinery driving her own age that would inspire his daughter.
As the last few years of the 1850s teetered to a nervous conclusion, the prospect of war took up a permanent residence among William’s legal cronies. The signs around him were hardly subtle: he could sense tectonic plates shifting beneath his family’s feet, and he wanted to be ready.
The 1860s opened upon the heels of an unusually cold December, the thermometers shivering at zero. Nothing so frivolous as weather ruled the household of William Price, however, as agonized loyalties played out in his family, reflecting the schism at the heart of the city itself. Seaport or not, Baltimore was a southern town with a northern manifesto, its leaders primarily Union men. In more ways than one, Maryland lay on the fault line, geographically in the middle of the nation’s coast.
Openly pro-Union, Maryland’s official position was not without risk: in reality, Maryland was a border state. Though the state contributed men and matériel to the Union’s efforts, the Baltimore southern sensibility was no small thing. Many secessionists pushing to legitimize the Confederacy resented the local abolitionists. In a telling paradox of the whole sorry debacle, the 7th Regiment United States Colored Troops and the 9th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops were heavily represented by Baltimoreans, in spite of the city’s collusions with slave-owning states. But on April 19, 1861, as northern troops passed through the city on their way south to defend Washington, D.C., the first blood of the Civil War was officially shed. The Baltimore Riots claimed the lives of four soldiers in the 6th Massachusetts Infantry. Several civilians were killed, and many more were injured.
Thomas, William’s and Marion’s firstborn, was barely mentioned in family chronicles. But Bruce’s adored older brother Benjamin joined the Yankee forces, while Adrian, four years younger, sided with the Rebels. It was a scene invading every neighborhood. Tangled loyalties rebounded in the anguish echoed across the city. Perhaps such misery motivated William to take the route open to upper-class men of his times: he paid authorities to ensure that young Bruce would not be drafted to fight, regardless of the nation’s needs.
The Baltimore schism was in many regards a kinship dispute that would run its course. But the repercussions of the deepest confusions about race, class, and nationality that the feud reproduced would resurface repeatedly. On June 10, 2006, the Ku Klux Klan rallied at the Antietam battlefield, where some believe William Price’s rebellious third son, Adrian, lost his life on the bloodiest day of the war.
Baltimore—“charm city” was its later nickname—was not a place where people with options chose to live out the nation’s crisis. William Price decided that the early 1860s would be a good time to send his family to the country to stay with other relatives who shared their pro-Union sentiments. Price himself stayed in the city. Long respected for his prudence, he was soon appointed by President Lincoln as U.S. district attorney for Maryland.From the Hardcover edition.
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