Archer Huntington’s Divorce

By Margaret A. Brucia

Archer Milton Huntington, painting by José María López, ca. 1930. Mezquita, The Hispanic Museum and Library

Archer Milton Huntington, painting by José María López, ca. 1930. Mezquita, The Hispanic Museum and Library

On March 10, 1921, Julia Gardiner Gayley, wrestling with seating plans for her upcoming parties, wrote to her daughter Mary from Washington Square.

"I have two big lunch parties with which I am now struggling. Perhaps you would like to know who is coming. Friday I have both men and women as follows: Besides G[ano] and myself there will be Mr. and Mrs. Billy Delano — both charming — Mr. and Mrs. Walter Maynard, Mr. and Mrs. Murray Young, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Rosen, an English painter, Mr. McEvoy coming with Rosens (she was one of the Bigelows), Mrs. Lucy Hewitt, Lucy [Frelinghuysen], Edith Morgan, Frances Rumsey, Louise Sands, Paul Dana, Larry White, Archer Huntington, the man who gave all the Spanish museum, church, etc., to New York and whose wife ran away last year with the play writer Granville Barker. So everybody is trying to give him a nice time. I may add Frances Blodgett and Lord Carrington who she has in her train. Horne is attending to the luncheon for me with two extra men."[1]

This is the latest in a series of posts based on the letters of the New York socialite, Julia Gardiner Gayley (1864-1937), to her eldest daughter, Mary Gayley Senni (1884-1971), a countess who lived on the outskirts of Rome. In 2010, the author purchased a trove of the letters in a Roman flea market. This mother-daughter correspondence spanned the years 1902-1936 and provides an intimate and unfiltered view of life in New York during the early twentieth century. You can find the earlier posts on our homepage.

And that was only the first of her two parties. Julie’s guests were a diverse group of architects, musicians, painters, authors and philanthropists; Protestants, Catholics and one Jew. The litany of names attests as much to the broad scope and range of Julie’s friends as to her ability to create a lively and interesting mix of people. Although each invitee had a notable backstory, Julie singled out just one for comment: the victim of a recent social scandal, around whom his friends loyally closed ranks. Who was Archer Huntington? What did “all the Spanish museum, church, etc.” mean? Why did his wife jilt him? And how was he handling the aftermath?

Little is known about Archer Milton Huntington’s childhood. No certificate records the city of his birth or his paternity, though he celebrated his birthday on March 10, 1870. His mother was Arabella (“Belle”) Duval Yarrington. Of that, we are certain. But accounts of Belle’s activities and whereabouts in the years leading up to Archer’s birth are varied and speculative. Nevertheless, common threads run through several versions and permit at least a hypothetical narrative.

"Arabella Huntington," painting by Alexandre Cabanel

"Arabella Huntington," painting by Alexandre Cabanel

It seems likely that Belle never married the man she lived with, John Archer Worsham, though she conveniently adopted his surname. Belle and Johnny left Richmond, Virginia, and traveled north sometime after the destruction of the confederate capital during the Civil War. Johnny hoped to reestablish his gambling house and faro parlor in New York. When his venture failed, he returned to his legal wife in Richmond, possibly as early as the summer of 1870. Belle, however, stayed behind, fashioning herself as the widow Worsham. At an indeterminate time, perhaps in Johnny’s gambling establishment in Richmond or in New York, perhaps through Belle’s younger brother, a railroad employee, Belle met the wealthy, married railroad magnate and industrialist Collis Potter Huntington, nearly thirty years her senior. She became his mistress and bore a son named Archer Milton Worsham. Belle may not have known who fathered her child.

Belle’s affair with Collis continued for years. Shrewd, clever and confident, with no shortage of financial assistance from her lover, she established herself in New York, where she speculated boldly and successfully in real estate. Upwardly mobile, both literally and figuratively, in 1877 Belle moved with seven-year-old Archer from 109 Lexington Avenue, near 28th Street, to a large house uptown at 4 West 54th Street. By now a studious autodidact, passionately interested in art and interior design, she gutted the house, added a wing, and installed a stunning array of opulent features, including rosewood paneling, a stained glass skylight, brocade wall coverings, a Moorish smoking room, Turkish bath, Japanese bedroom and — the piece de resistance — one of the first Otis elevators in a private home.[2] In June 1884, in her parlor, Arabella Yarrington Worsham married the recently widowed Collis P. Huntington — for the second time.

According to one story, [3] Collis, eager to marry Belle as soon as possible, was wary of society’s inevitable censure should the wedding take place too soon after his wife’s death. Accustomed to having his way, he paid a hefty fee of fifteen hundred dollars to the celebrated preacher, Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn, no stranger to scandal himself, to perform the ceremony in secret. The lovers quickly escaped to Europe, eluding the public eye. After their return months later, Collis gave Beecher another fifteen hundred dollars to marry them publically. Upon receiving his payment, the seventy-four-year-old Beecher, his sense of humor still sharp, purportedly turned to the groom and said, “Collis, I do wish you were a Mormon.”

Shortly after her wedding, Belle sold her furnished house on 54th Street to John D. Rockefeller, Sr. who, except for new carpets, barely changed a thing. And so Belle’s exuberant and imaginative Gilded Age decor remained intact until shortly after Rockefeller’s death in 1937, when his son demolished the building to make way for the construction of the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA’s sculpture garden now occupies the site of Archer’s childhood home. Fortunately, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had the foresight to spare three rooms. He donated Belle’s Moorish smoking room to the Brooklyn Museum and her furnished bedroom and dressing room to the Museum of the City of New York. In 2008, the MCNY gave Belle’s dressing room to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her bedroom to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. All three rooms are on view today.

Pablo Enriquez, New York Times

Pablo Enriquez, New York Times

When Belle married Collis, fourteen-year-old Archer changed his name from Worsham to Huntington. Collis referred to Archer as his adopted son, but no legal proof of adoption survives. And, although his new name served him well, except for their mutual devotion to Belle, Archer and Collis had little in common. Far more interested in the humanities and poetry than in railroads and business, Archer, with his mother’s encouragement and considerable financial resources, zealously pursued his early childhood fascination with Spain. The aging and childless Collis was forced to look elsewhere for an heir to protect and advance his business concerns. His nephew, Henry E. Huntington, who admirably combined business acumen with a refined aesthetic sense, a man the same age as Belle, filled that role.

Meanwhile, Archer mastered Spanish with lightning speed and developed proficiency in Arabic. He visited Mexico, Cuba and the American Southwest and traveled extensively in Spain. He embarked on a scholarly translation of El Cid and acquired a vast and impressive collection of Hispanic art, literature and decorative objects. His dream, conceived in 1890, when he was twenty, was to establish a museum dedicated to Hispanic culture in New York City. By the time he was thirty-four, Archer had accomplished that goal as well.[4]

The Hispanic Society of America, founded in 1904, was the first of four distinct cultural institutions established with Archer’s help on land he donated at Audubon Terrace, west of Broadway, between 155th and 156th Streets, in Washington Heights. To this day, the Hispanic Society museum houses a collection of Hispanic art unparalleled outside Spain in its scope and quality.[5] Remarkably, Archer dedicated his museum only six years after the Spanish-American War, at a time when lingering jingoism might have prevented someone less determined than Archer from formally acknowledging and celebrating the achievements of the Hispanic people.

The Hispanic Society of America

The Hispanic Society of America

Then, in 1909, responding to a request for a place of worship for the myriad of diverse Spanish–speaking Catholics of New York City, Archer donated land near his museum complex and provided the seed money necessary to build a church. He commissioned his cousin, the architect Charles P. Huntington, to design the building in the Italian Renaissance style. On July 21, 1912, Our Lady of Esperanza opened its doors to the public.

When Julie described Archer as “the man who gave all the Spanish museum, church, etc., to New York,” she was referring, of course, to the Hispanic Society and to his museum complex, not yet complete, and to Our Lady of Esperanza, at Audubon Terrace.

One wonders what form of networking went on at Julie’s party. After all, two prominent architects were at her luncheon. By 1921, Archer must have realized that his nine-year-old church with its ever-increasing flock of parishioners would soon need expansion — and his architect-cousin Charles had died in 1919. Did Archer buttonhole the “charming” William (“Billy”) Adams Delano who, in partnership with Chester Holmes Aldrich, had a host of important buildings to his credit, including Kykuit, the Sleepy Hollow home of the Rockefellers, and both the Knickerbocker Club and the Colony Club in New York?

More likely he conversed with Lawrence (“Larry”) Grant White, the only child of Stanford White, who had joined his deceased father’s architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White, just two years earlier. Archer, like everyone else at Julie’s party, was surely sensitive to Larry’s past personal tragedy. Because of the publicity engendered by “The Trial of the Century,” Julie’s guests knew that Stanford White had abruptly cancelled plans to be in Philadelphia on June 25, 1906, the night of his murder, to see his then nineteen-year-old son Larry, who had unexpectedly come to New York. Larry lived with the understandable, but misplaced, guilt of his father’s death.

Besides, Archer and Larry had much in common. They shared a profound sensitivity to art and literature, especially poetry. And whereas Archer had published a masterful and authoritative translation of the Spanish epic poem El Cid, Larry favored Dante. In 1948, Larry would publish a highly acclaimed translation, in blank verse, of The Divine Comedy.[6] Regardless of what may have transpired at Julie’s party between them, Archer soon thereafter hired Larry as his architect. Our Lady of Esperanza, its interior expanded, its façade radically reworked in the Beaux-Arts style according to Larry’s new design, was completed in 1924.

But maybe Archer was not very chatty at the party that day. He may have had other things on his mind. Later in her letter to her daughter, Julie returned to the subject of Archer.

"I am rather fond of Mr. Huntington. He makes love to me so frankly and to any other attractive woman. He settled a lot of money on his wife when she ran away, a million or two I believe, and he will not listen to a word of sympathy on the subject and generally says: 'Poor Helen, she had a great deal to put up with...' There is something plaintive about him although I am sure he must weigh 350 pounds, mostly in front."

In 1895, Archer married Helen Manchester Gates, his would-be cousin (Helen was Collis’s sister’s daughter). Like her mother, Helen was an accomplished poet. Fluent in Spanish, she shared her husband’s enthusiasm for Hispanic culture. Helen and Archer functioned as a team, pursuing their mutual interests. While he translated El Cid, she rendered Spanish folk songs into elegant poetry.[7] In 1914, Helen accompanied Archer to Germany on a mission for the National Geographic Society. Toting maps, they were arrested as Russian spies and detained in Nuremberg for three days until the American authorities secured their release.[8] From outward appearances, their life together was full and exciting. After twenty years of marriage, however, Helen fell hopelessly in love with the British actor-playwright-producer Harley Granville Barker.

Like everything about Archer’s private life, stories vary and inconsistencies abound. One account, published in a Washington D.C. paper in 1918, offered a dramatic and colorful version of events. [9] In 1915, Harley and his wife Lillah McCarthy, who had met Archer and Helen years before, were in New York, where Harley was producing a series of plays at Wallack’s Theatre. He had cast Lillah in the starring role, as a mute woman, in the unfortunately titled play by Anatole France, “The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife.” During the play’s run, Lillah, ironically, suffered a severe bout of bronchitis and was confined to bed, unable to speak except in a hoarse whisper. When Helen visited her friend in her sickroom, Lillah purportedly asked Helen to keep her husband entertained until she recovered. Helen happily complied. Several weeks later, Lillah, sensing the developing romance between Harley and Helen, confronted her husband, who confirmed the truth. We can only imagine what the letter Lillah then sent to Helen said. Archer, having intercepted and read it, handed it to Helen. Divorces were hastily but discretely obtained. By 1918, Harley and Helen were married, Archer slipped below the social radar in Europe, and Harley’s “dumb” but wiser former wife resumed her acting career.


After his divorce, Archer, painfully private, became classically depressed. He ate excessively. Tall at six feet, five inches, he was now alarmingly obese. But he pressed on, overeating and overworking. Julie depicted Archer as a kind and proud but broken man. Fortunately his story has a happy ending. Two years, practically to the day, after Julie’s party, Archer married the sculptor Anna Vaughn Hyatt.

El Cid Campeador, by Anna Hyatt Huntington

El Cid Campeador, by Anna Hyatt Huntington

Anna Hyatt, who specialized in realistic animal sculpture, both large and small, was one of America’s foremost sculptors. In 1910 her life-size bronze rendition of Joan of Arc, armored and astride a horse, received acclaim at the Paris Salon. In 1915, a version of that sculpture was installed in Riverside Park at 93rd Street, making it the first public monument in New York of a real woman (as opposed to an allegorical figure) and the first by a woman.[10] Archer and Anna began corresponding in 1921, soon after Julie’s party.[11] He asked her to create a medal in honor of William Dean Howells for the American Academy of Arts and Letters, housed at Audubon Terrace. By September of that year they were working together on a design for the courtyard of his complex, which would feature her heroic monumental sculpture, El Cid Campeador.

Archer and Anna were married in her studio — on March 10, 1923, their double birthday. They celebrated that day each year as their “three-in-one-day.” He was fifty-four and she was forty-seven. And, thanks to a promise he made to Anna, Archer began to shed his excess weight.[12] After long and productive lives together, Archer died at the age of eighty-five and Anna at ninety-seven. They are buried side-by-side, along with Collis, in the Huntington Mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery. But Belle is not with them.

What became of Archer’s indomitable mother? Collis died in 1900. According to the terms of his will, nearly two-thirds of his estate went to Belle and one-third to his nephew and business partner, Henry.[13] Except for the income generated from $250,000 held in trust for life, Collis left nothing to Archer. But thirteen years after Collis’s death, Archer, the former husband of one “cousin” became the stepson of another “cousin” when his mother married her nephew-by-marriage Henry, thus reuniting the two segments of Collis’s vast fortune. Belle died one of the wealthiest women in the world, at the age of seventy-four, in 1924, the year after Archer’s marriage to Anna. Her beloved son became her principal heir.

Margaret A. Brucia has taught Latin in New York and Rome for many years and is a Fulbright scholar, the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

[1] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, December 19, 1916, author's collection.

[2] For information about Belle’s interior decorations, see Stephen Birmingham, Grandes Dames (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 194-95. For pictures of the interior of the house, see “The Lost John D. Rockefeller Mansion – No. 4 West 54th Street,” Daytonian in Manhattan, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[3] “Beecher’s Wedding Fees,” The Lyceumite and Talent, Vol. 1, December 1907, 79.

[4] “Archer Huntington,” The Hispanic Museum and Library, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[5] “History,” The Hispanic Museum and Library, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[6] Archer’s translation was originally published in three volumes, beginning in 1897, as Poem of the Cid, reprinted from the unique manuscript at Madrid by Archer M. Huntington, 3 vols. (New York: The Hispanic Society of America, ca. 1891-1908). Larry’s translation of Dante was published as The Divine Comedy: the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (New York: Pantheon Books, 1948).

[7] Helen Huntington, Folk Songs from the Spanish (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900).

[8] “Huntingtons Not in Jail,” New York Times, August 11, 1914.

[9] “How Too Thoughtful Mrs. Granville Barker Lost Her Husband,” The Washington Times, September 26, 1918, 23.

[10] Stephanie Strasnick, “The Most Famous New York Sculptor You’ve Never Head Of,” Art News, posted 01/21/14, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[11] Daniel Ralston, “Spanish American: Anna Hyatt Huntington’s Remodeled Ambitions, 1923-1931,” Columbia University, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[12] Selby Kiffer, “Archer Huntington,” in Magnificent Coins of the Spanish World: The Archer M. Huntington Collection by David Trip (Southeby’s Catalog, 2012) 12, (accessed August 14, 2017).

[13] “Mr. Huntington’s Will,” New York Times, August 25, 1900.