The Epistolarians

By Margaret A. Brucia

Julie in 1902. Courtesy of Peter Seymour.

Julie in 1902. Courtesy of Peter Seymour.

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.

Mary in 1902. Courtesy of Peter Seymour.

Mary in 1902. Courtesy of Peter Seymour.

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.

Julia Gardiner Gayley was born in Elmira, New York, in 1864. Of impressive pedigree, she was the oldest child of Colonel Curtiss Crane Gardiner, a Civil War veteran, and the former Mary Parmalee Thurston, but a lineal descendant on her father’s side of Lion Gardiner, the eponymous 17th-century Lord of the Manor at New York’s Gardiner’s Island, and on her mother’s side of Miles Standish, Mayflower voyager and commander of Plymouth Colony’s militia. When Julie was still a child, the Gardiners moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Julie’s mother, timid and reserved by nature, made little effort to socialize, and her father, deafened from a burst eardrum during the Civil War, preferred a solitary life at home. In her memoir, Mary commented that Julie, as a young adult, led “a life of ‘high thinking’ and hardly any worldly gayety, which I think she always longed for, and felt rather bitterly that my grandmother never did anything to achieve it.”[1]

Had it not been for the socially prominent neighboring family of Henry Tayler Blow — abolitionist, U. S. senator, minister to Venezuela and ambassador to Brazil — Julie’s interest in art, passion for travel and talent as a pianist might never have developed. Four of the Blow daughters became lifelong friends of Julie and, according to Mary, gave Julie “glimpses of Europe and a larger world which haunted her, and to which her longing turned in the drab years ahead.”[2] The Blows’ oldest daughter, Susie, wielded the greatest influence on Julie. Educated abroad, Susie was a pioneer in early childhood education and founded the first American public kindergarten. She imbued Julie with modern principles of childrearing, which Julie, in turn, put into practice raising and teaching her own three daughters. Susie also encouraged Julie to study piano, which became a source of great enjoyment and consolation to her in later years.

James in 1902. Courtesy of Peter Seymour.

James in 1902. Courtesy of Peter Seymour.

Julie met James Gayley in St. Louis in 1879, when she was fourteen and he, fresh from Lafayette College with a degree in metallurgy and several patents to his name, was twenty-three. Employed as a chemist for the Missouri Furnace Company, James remained in St. Louis for nearly two years. A studious, if impecunious, young man with talent and promise, James set his sights on Julie even then. In 1880 he left St. Louis to accept a position as manager of blast furnaces at the E. & G. Brooke Iron Co. in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, but a few years later he returned for Julie. On February 21, 1884, after a brief courtship and with little fanfare, nineteen-year-old Julie married twenty-eight-year-old James. The St. Louis newspaper reported that James’s father, a Presbyterian minister from Colora, Maryland, performed the ceremony at the Gardiners’ home with only the immediate family present.[3] Julie left St. Louis to join her husband in Birdsboro, where she gave birth to Mary Thurston Gayley ten months later.

James’s specialty was blast furnaces. When he patented a process for increasing the production of steel by regulating the amount of water in the furnace, James’s unrivaled success came to the attention of Andrew Carnegie. In 1886 Carnegie wooed James to the Edgar Thompson Steel Works near Pittsburgh.

The Gayleys moved to the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, where Julie gave birth to a second daughter, Agnes, in 1886 and a third, Florence (called Folly), in 1889. Devoted to raising and educating her young girls, Julie, a naturally gifted teacher, established a school in her home for them and for neighboring children. Her daughters adored her, as Mary’s perceptive tribute to her mother in her memoir eloquently attests:

I have known many mothers who literally lived for and in their children, and yet their hold over their affection and interest was nothing like Mother's. She loved us tenderly, she would do anything to help us, … but her life followed its own pattern, not ours. The famous sentence of St. Bernard, which I quote so often, that one should be a réservoir and not a canal, for the canal loses water, seeping out all its length, whereas the réservoir gives its ‘sur plein’, applies very neatly to Mother. It was because she stored up so much in herself, such a varied and rich treasure of mind and heart and spirit, that she had so much of value to give to others. No one was ever so passionately attached to intellectual activity.[4]

In 1895 the Gayley family, their personal fortune keeping pace with the burgeoning steel industry, moved to a townhouse in Pittsburgh proper. With Julie’s daughters now in local schools and requiring less of her time, she took greater advantage of her newfound independence and of the cultural opportunities that Pittsburgh offered. But James’s focus remained on business. He worked increasingly longer hours for Carnegie and expressed little interest in Julie or her activities. Julie studied piano at the Pittsburgh Conservatory, worked with George Westinghouse to help found the Pittsburgh Orchestra, took an active role in the establishment of the Carnegie library, and served as an officer of the Twentieth Century Club, a women’s social and cultural organization. Reflecting on the growing incompatibility of her parents at this time, Mary wrote, “It was not a happy marriage, there was too much disparity of temperament, tastes and heart…. [Papa] loved his work and became eminent in it, as an expert on the making of steel. His youth had been rather grey and joyless, and he cared nothing for music or other arts.”[5]

But despite their differences, Julie would probably have remained married to James had not the trajectory of her life changed sharply in 1898, when she met Sylvia Beaston.

An independent lecturer on contemporary events, European history and Shakespeare, Sylvia was invited to speak at the Twentieth Century Club. Although the exact topic of her talk that evening remains obscure, Julie, impressed with Sylvia’s presentation, invited her to dinner afterwards. The attraction between these two women was immediate and intense. According to Mary, the moment they looked into each other’s eyes, both women knew their loneliness was ended.[6]

Julie and Sylvia, Atlantic City, undated. Courtesy of Vittoria McIlhenny.

Julie and Sylvia, Atlantic City, undated. Courtesy of Vittoria McIlhenny.

Twelve years older than Julie, never married and of limited financial means, Sylvia, lived alone in Camden, New Jersey. She was “as unattractive as Julie was beautiful,” observed one family friend.[7] But what bound these soon-to-be inseparable women was their shared passion for travel, music, art and each other. Julie, satisfying a longing she harbored from her days in St. Louis, planned extended trips to France with Sylvia and her three daughters. She enrolled Mary, Agnes and Folly in a boarding school in Neuilly to improve their French, while she and Sylvia roomed nearby and spent a blissful year together. Once Julie and her daughters returned to Pittsburgh, Julie looked for every opportunity to invite Sylvia to visit them, and together they planned their next European tour.

8 East Sixty-ninth Street, today

8 East Sixty-ninth Street, today

James was pleased with this new, if unusual, arrangement. So long as his wife was traveling or busy and content at home, he was free to work long hours for Carnegie or socialize with his business acquaintances. Then, in 1901, James’s career took another leap forward when Carnegie promoted him to the position of first vice president of the newly formed U. S. Steel Corporation, headquartered in New York. James sold the house in Pittsburgh and purchased, in Julie’s name, a gracious Italianate mansion at 8 East Sixty-ninth Street.[8] And he invited Sylvia to join them, but not, as Mary explained, for entirely altruistic reasons:

Before coming to live in the house, Papa made a most explicit invitation to Sylvia to come and live with us, saying it would be no home without her. He got on well with her, he saw how much she helped Mother in many material things and with us, and above all he was glad to have greater freedom in his new life of wealth and a good deal of wild living, and Sylvia was useful to him in making his absences less noticeable. It is a bad legend, of how all the ‘Carnegie millionaires’ turned to chorus girls, drinking and poker when transplanted in New York, and he was, alas, no exception in that.[9]

When the Gayleys moved to New York, Mary was sixteen years old and deep in the throes of adolescence. Bookish, introspective, constitutionally delicate and unhappily uprooted, she had a difficult time finding a niche among social peers whose cliques were long established. In August 1902, after spending most of the summer alone in her room reading, her exasperated mother, proposed to send Mary on a tour of Italy, prompted by Sylvia, who suggested a perfect chaperone. Mary needed little convincing to leave New York.

Like Sylvia, Mary’s chaperone, Agnes Repplier, was an unmarried woman of a certain age. A native of Philadelphia, an ardent Catholic and a witty, incisive and prolific essayist of considerable renown, Agnes published articles regularly in the Atlantic Monthly, Life, Century Magazine, Harper’s, The Catholic World and other popular periodicals. At forty-eight, she was gray-haired, wore rimless spectacles and, according to Mary, dressed “rather primly.” She had “old-fashioned and elaborate” manners and chose her words with precision, employing what Mary described as “18th-century diction.”[10] Agnes was indeed the perfect chaperone — a knowledgeable and indefatigable guide and a delightful, if quirky, companion.

Mary and Agnes settled in Rome for several months, and Mary began to mix enthusiastically with a young set of Americans, English and Italians. In the spring of 1903, at a tea during Easter week, Mary met the prepossessing Giulio Senni, an elegant papal count whose family, it was rumored, was in financial straits. At twenty-five, Giulio was handsome, well dressed, a graceful dancer and an accomplished sportsman. He spoke English poorly and with a heavy accent, but his French was flawless — and Mary was smitten. When the annus mirabilis (her “year of wonder,” as she referred to it in her memoir) drew to a close, Mary returned reluctantly to New York to make her formal debut in society. Though she dated other young men, Giulio, with whom she began to correspond regularly, was never far from her thoughts.

Four years later, on November 16, 1907, Mary married Count Giulio Senni at the Gayley mansion in New York. To ease their financial burden, James gave his daughter a wedding present of $100,000 (nearly two-and-a-half million dollars today) and offered to pay the young couple’s living expenses. In January 1908, Mary sailed with her husband to Italy to begin married life abroad. But her joy was tempered by the knowledge that she was leaving her mother in New York to face a disintegrating marriage and impending divorce alone.

Mary and Guilio on their honeymoon in Southampton, Long Island, 1907. Courtesy of Vittoria McIlhenny.

Mary and Guilio on their honeymoon in Southampton, Long Island, 1907. Courtesy of Vittoria McIlhenny.

Abruptly separated from one another just as their lives veered in new trajectories, Julie and Mary had no recourse but to communicate through letters. For the next twenty-eight years they were steadfast correspondents for whom nothing was off limits — from the trivia of life to its travails. Their letters, rich in detail, became a lifeline for them and, preserved by chance, have become for us a small window, opening directly into their world.

When Mary revealed her first pregnancy to her mother, for example, Julie, overjoyed, immediately put pen to paper to prepare her nervous daughter for childbirth. So clear and thorough were her written explanations (she even sent anatomical pictures) that Julie’s letters could have been bound and marketed as a manual entitled “How to Have a Baby.” And, similarly, as the specter first of separation, then of divorce, loomed for Julie, she explained the entire legal process to her daughter, all the while planning her strategy and weighing each option openly in her letters. She deftly and poignantly illuminated, from the inside, the toll — psychologically, socially and financially — of divorce on a woman in 1910.

Mary, for her part, explained to her mother the difficulties of avoiding the stings of social criticism as she tried desperately to master Italian and to blend seamlessly into a foreign culture where American customs had no place. In one instance, she described in painful detail, the utter mortification she felt at a tea given by her mother-in-law: Mary had confidently donned her favorite brightly colored dress for the event, only to find all the other women swathed in black.

But a faux pas like choosing the wrong clothing was insignificant compared to the challenges Mary faced during the war years, when Italy’s resources were ravaged and communication restricted. Her letters described, in vivid language, the fear and anxiety for their safety that she and her family endured and, as the Great War came to its conclusion, her immense feeling of jubilation and relief in the slow return to normalcy.

Insights such as these abound in the letters and take on an added dimension. They ring with honesty as they unfold, unedited, in real time. The writing of both mother and daughter is heartfelt and unpretentious because their letters were never intended for an audience wider than their immediate family.

* * *

20 Washington Square North (as it appears today), where Julie lived from 1909-1935, and held the dinner parties described in this series

20 Washington Square North (as it appears today), where Julie lived from 1909-1935, and held the dinner parties described in this series

This series, Julie and Mary, has focused primarily on celebrities Julie, an otherwise forgotten socialite, interacted with in New York. She has been the catalyst, the excuse to highlight them. But we must not overlook the importance of her own life. Though fixed in time, Julie, in her letters to her daughter, addressed timeless concerns and issues that resonate as strongly today as they did in the early-twentieth century: the value of independent thinking, society’s unfair censure of same-sex relationships, the challenges of forging a satisfying life after divorce, the meaning of love, the transcendent power of music, art and literature, the benefit of expanding one’s intellectual horizons, and, above all, the importance of family.

Before there was email, there were letters — words in cursive script, entrusted to durable rag paper, written with indelible ink from fountain pens. They were not virtual, but tangible. They were saved and stored in physical files and in boxes, not on desktops, but in desk drawers. And they do enrich our lives.

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] Mary Gayley Senni, unpublished memoir, 24 (author’s collection).

[2] Id., 24.

[3] Details about Julie and James’s background, courtship and marriage are from their wedding announcement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 21, 1884, 2.

[4] Senni, 37.

[5] Id., 25.

[6] Id., 42.

[7] Madeleine Yeatman, unpublished memoir.

[8] The Gayley mansion, designed in 1893 from by the architectural firm Peabody & Stearns, still stands. Today it is the headquarters of the Columbus Citizens Foundation. See

[9] Senni, 57.

[10] Id., 4.