By Margaret A. Brucia
The nearly 300 letters were a jumbled heap— out of their envelopes, out of order, out of my field of expertise. But the moment I bargained for them that spring morning in the confusion of a Roman flea market, the academic focus of my life underwent a seismic shift, from the ancient Mediterranean world to New York City in the Gilded Age. Julia Gardiner Gayley’s letters, it turned out, were more than just interesting primary source material from the first three decades of the twentieth century, they were a passageway into the intimate lives of two strong, confident, articulate, independent-minded women. And they told a story worthy of Henry James or Edith Wharton, from the beginning of Mary’s Grand Tour of Italy in 1902 to her mother’s death in New York in 1937.
Four months after I found the letters, I found Julie’s great-granddaughter, Vittoria McIlhenny, in Maine. Pleased that I had rescued the correspondence from oblivion, Vittoria graciously and patiently answered my questions and shared photographs of her family. She gave me a copy of her grandmother Mary’s memoir, written when Mary was in her sixties. And then, four years later, while Vittoria and her brother Sandro were moving an old desk from an attic, they discovered something in the drawers — the other half of my correspondence, bundles of Mary’s letters to her mother. This wealth of information became my primary source for the series we have just concluded, Julie & Mary: The Private Letters of the Gayley Women. The first seven posts focused on a few of the many famous people Julia Gardiner Gayley interacted with in New York (actors, musicians, painters, scientists, businessmen, religious leaders, philanthropists, social activists, authors, philosophers, architects and politicians). Rita Lydig, Sarah Bernhardt, Alessandro Fabbri, Archer Huntington, Daisy Chanler, Albert Einstein, Ralph Adams Cram and Woodrow Wilson emerged as my stars. Now, in this final post, it’s Julie and Mary’s time to shine.