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.
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.” 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.
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. Julie left St. Louis to join her husband in Birdsboro, where she gave birth to Mary Thurston Gayley ten months later.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.” 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.
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.
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.
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.
 Mary Gayley Senni, unpublished memoir, 24 (author’s collection).
 Id., 24.
 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.
 Senni, 37.
 Id., 25.
 Id., 42.
 Madeleine Yeatman, unpublished memoir.
 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 www.columbuscitizensfd.org/about-us/foundation-townhouse.html
 Senni, 57.
 Id., 4.