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.
Despite their shared interests and the increasing frequency of their time together, neither Julie’s friends nor her family suspected that Julie and Gano were involved in anything more than a friendly relationship. When, in the early summer of 1920, Julie hinted to her daughters that she was considering Gano’s proposal of marriage, after the initial shock, all three tried to dissuade her — although not because they disliked him. They viewed Gano as part of their social set, not hers. But scarcely two months after Julie’s youngest daughter’s wedding, Julie and Gano were quietly married at Grace Church, on Broadway and 10th Street.
The announcement in the New-York Tribune surely generated more than a few arched eyebrows among members of her social circle. “Society will be surprised to learn,” it began, “that Mrs. Julia Gardiner Gayley, daughter of the late Curtis Crane Gardiner, of the Gardiner’s Island family, is to be married, to Gano Dunn, of this city, this afternoon in Grace Church. No formal announcement had been made of the engagement and none but members of the families knew of the approaching marriage...”
The notice said everything in what was left unsaid. A self-made man, Gano brought neither Julie’s impressive pedigree nor the financial wherewithal of her previous husband, James Gayley, first vice president of the U. S. Steel Corporation, to the marriage.
But Gano was far more than just a man “of this city.” Towards the end, the announcement perfunctorily listed a few of Gano’s accomplishments (graduate of Columbia, electrical engineer, and author of “various papers on electrical and engineering subjects”). But it hardly did him justice. A brilliant scientist, Gano’s professional achievements were considerable. He earned one of the first advanced degrees in electrical engineering awarded in America, had several patents to his name, was president of the prestigious J.G. White Engineering Company since 1913, and, as a physicist, was elected to membership in the elite National Academy of Sciences. Moreover, if not fabulously wealthy, Gano certainly earned a decent income, was a well-respected leader in the scientific community, and showed unwavering devotion to Julie. He also offered Julie both the intellectual stimulation she craved and a new position in society as a comfortably married woman.
Since 1909, when she sold her opulent uptown mansion on East 69th Street after her separation from James Gayley, Julie lived in a spacious apartment at 20 Washington Square North. In anticipation of her new life with Gano, Julie lavishly redecorated her home. Most notably, she expanded the library to make room for Gano’s scientific books and his collection of microscopes, and she refurbished the drawing room, where she spent hours each day playing her beloved Steinway.
Julie’s efforts were well timed. On April 3, 1921, forty-two-year-old Albert Einstein, already a metonymy for genius, disembarked at New York Harbor for his much-anticipated first visit to America. His arrival caused a sensation. Thousands of New Yorkers lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the man who articulated the theory of relativity — a concept most people realized was important, even if they had no idea why.
The opening paragraph of the cover story in the New York Times engagingly captured the Einstein frenzy sweeping America.
One of the eleven who purportedly understood Einstein’s theory and a speaker of German, Gano was chosen by the National Academy of Sciences to serve as Einstein’s guide and interpreter. (Einstein spoke no English.) Gano traveled to Washington in Einstein’s entourage, introduced him to President Warren G. Harding, and accompanied him on lecture tours. When anti-German sentiment and mistaken notions about Einstein’s citizenship complicated his reception in Washington, Gano diplomatically undertook the task of setting the matter straight. “I explained this away in several instances,” Gano wrote to a friend at Princeton, “and it made a big difference (I am rather sorry to say) although I can fully understand and actually share the feeling against Germans.... Einstein while born of German parents, is a Swiss citizen who during the war accepted the call to leave Zurich and teach at Berlin only on the written agreement of the Emperor that he should maintain his Swiss citizenship.”
One can only imagine her fluster when Julie learned that Einstein had accepted Gano’s invitation to dinner at Washington Square before his return home in late May. Of course she would ask Einstein to bring his violin, adding another dimension to the mix of her guests. To the requisite assemblage of scientists, philosophers, and academics she would add musicians.
Although Julie did not provide her daughter with an exhaustive guest list, we can glean at least a partial one from the descriptions and anecdotes she wrote to Mary in the afterglow of the evening. “Now for the Einstein party about which I should like to grow lyric. Do you remember how you always laughed at me for looking for a sort of ideal salon in which only intelligent people should be? And perhaps you do not know what an atmosphere of beauty has always seemed to me to lie about those small and insignificant German courts where men like Goethe and Schiller were glad to do homage to genius? In my imagination, too, those salons always had yellow satin on the walls and of course they were lighted by candles. My childhood’s dream came true the other night. For three hours I felt as if I, the Queen of Westphalia, we will say, had summoned the neighboring Queen of Wurtemburg wearing her diamonds (Mrs. Lanier), the loquacious Duchess of the Palatinate (Mrs. Butler), etc., etc., to come and meet the discoverer of a new planet. That he would play the violin would be almost a foregone conclusion.”
Since Julie’s multilingual guests conversed comfortably in English, German, French and Russian, one can only imagine the challenge of creating a seating plan that facilitated and encouraged the free flow of conversation. “There were two moments I shall never forget. The first is comic. I had put Einstein to my right; next to him, Dr. Pupin; then Mrs. Fabbri, Gerry: etc., etc. At my left was Dr. Butler; after him, Dr. Cohen; Mrs. Lanier, etc. I had not wanted Einstein to be hampered by my lack of German and he was very happy talking with Dr. Pupin and, across me, to Dr. Butler; also with me sometimes in French; but at one moment as I looked around the excitable Mrs. Fabbri was leaning toward him with hands outstretched and clasped, assuring him in beautiful German and with ecstatic eyes that he had deepened her faith in immortality!!”
Dr. Mihajlo [“Michael”] Idvorski Pupin was a Serbian-American physicist who immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to America in 1874. A graduate of Columbia, he earned his doctorate in Berlin and returned to New York to teach mathematical physics in Columbia’s newly formed Department of Electrical Engineering, when Gano was already a star pupil. Among Pupin's most significant scientific contribution was his invention of loading coils, later known as Pupin coils, to increase amplification levels in long distance telephony. In 1900, American Telephone & Telegraph purchased his patents for $455,000, making Dr. Pupin a very wealthy man. Pupin's autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924.
Why, one wonders, was Gano horrified that Julie had seated Nicholas Murray Butler and Morris Raphael Cohen in such close proximity? Clearly there was some friction between the men. Julie hinted at it: “Certainly in this world of science and of university atmospheres, as well as in society itself good grooming and clean linen play a leading part. When I spoke to Dr. Butler last winter about him [Cohen] his first question was — ‘Is he presentable?’”
Next, Julie wrote about the apex of the evening — the after-dinner entertainment in her newly redecorated drawing room. “The second moment to which I refer was far different. It was about ten o’clock and we were all sitting about the drawing room in groups while Harold Bauer played a Mozart Sonata with Einstein standing at his right before my beautiful carved gilt violin stand (ordered with dreams ahead nearly 20 years ago) playing his violin. No living man plays Mozart the way Bauer does and added to this there was a peculiar tenderness which anticipated and filled out and waited for all the places where the violinist followed his own fancy, rather than that of a received model. He played musically, reverently, enthusiastically and with a tremendous beauty of form and accent which everyone felt — Bauer most of all, as he said afterwards. It was the moment of consecration for all the achievements, imperfect as they are, which have made people think this a beautiful room and this a sympathetic place. It was the moment for which the yellow satin and the candles and the violin stand and the too large piano had been waiting, and I was swept away with a sense of fulfillment. You and Giulio would have felt it too had you been here. Even the rough and censorious Dr. Butler, who at table had not been able to resist saying things about philosophers who were unkempt, beamed benevolently and said: ‘This is the Germany of 1890 before it changed.’”
Julie’s sense of excitement, satisfaction and pride was palpable in her letter to Mary. This was the dinner party of a lifetime. She captured it eloquently for Mary, and Agnes witnessed it firsthand. Her youngest daughter Folly, however, having given birth only two weeks earlier, could not attend. But any disappointment that Folly may have felt about missing the evening with Einstein was superseded by her joy in the birth of Julia, her first child and Julie’s namesake. Folly, who idolized her older sister Mary, deserves the last word.
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.
 “Mrs. Julia Gayley and Gano Dunn are to be Wedded in Grace Church To-day,” New-York Tribune, August 26, 1920.
 “Prof. Einstein Here, Explains Relativity,” New York Times, April 3, 1921.
 Raymond Moley and Celeste Jedel, “Engineer No. 1,” Saturday Evening Post, October 11, 1941, 29.
 József Illy, ed., Albert Meets America: How Journalists Treated Genius During Einstein's 1921 Travels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 134.
 Gano Dunn to Oswald Veblen, May 5, 1921, in Albert Meets America, edited by József Illy, 136-37 and n. 44, 336.
 Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, May 26, 1921, author’s collection. All subsequent quotations from Julie are excerpted from this letter.
 Landmarks Preservation Commission Report, Designation List 127, LP-1048, September 11, 1979. http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/79---JAMES-F.D.-LANIER-RESIDENCE.pdf
 Michael Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 250.
 Anton A. Huurdeman, The Worldwide History of Telecommunications (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 318.
 See Margaret A. Brucia, "Alessandro Fabbri, the Rockefeller Institute & the Immortal Chicken Heart," Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History, September 5, 2017. See, e.g., Robert Cohen, When the Old Left Was Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 23.
 Florence Gayley Montgomery to Mary Gayley Senni, May 30, 1921, author’s collection.
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