Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Recollections of John Henry Livingston

I probably haven't devoted enough time on this blog to John Henry Livingston (1848-1927). Alice Livingston's husband (I talk about her all the time), he had grown up at Clermont during the mid nineteenth century and lived here intermitently until his death. He had a law career and almost a political career. He outlived two wives before marrying Alice in 1906, and he made many of the most notable renovations to Clermont during his tenure as head-of-household (including the roofline, 10 bathrooms, and and the addition and subsequent removal of a large Victorian porch).

In 2000, when his daughter Honoria passed away, she left behind a ledger filled with loose manuscripts, which she left to Clermont. Amongst these was a brief, unfinished writing by John Henry, which gives us a look into his life.

This anecdotal little narative is primarily devoted to telling the story of John Henry's own childhood and the process of growing up, but in the process it sheds light on family life at Clermont in the early and mid nineteenth century.

John Henry's parents were Clermont (pronounced "Clement"--but yes, he was named after the house) and Cornelia. Cornelia was Clermont's third cousin, which John Henry mentions without disquiet. The Livingstons, and many other wealthy Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, married distant cousins with some frequency, and later in life, John Henry was not exempt from this practice.

They lived year-round at their Clermont estate with their two children, where they could be near Cornelia's parents (who lived Oak Hill, near the present-day location of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge). His mother also enjoyed a close friendship with their next-door neighbors Montgomery Livingston and his wife Mary Colden Swartout Livingston.

John Henry never had a chance to know his mother well, as she passed away in 1851 when he was only three and she was 27. She was aparently ill for several months as the family relocated to New York City, where she could be near her physician. In his writings, he reached for the details that he knew in order to preserve some memory of her:

I cannot remember her alas, but those who knew her told me she was very beautiful. She was tall, five feet ten inches I think -- a fine carriage and regular features. Mr. Charles Tillotson, who was one of her intimate friends, once told me that he thought her the handsomest woman he had ever seen. There is no life portrait of her, that which I have was copied from a dauggereotype after her death, but the coloring is her own, for Mr. Tillotson kindly described it in detail to the artist & took great pains that it would be correct.

In John Henry's adult life, this ghostly-looking post-mordem portrait hung in the private family library.

John Henry's father Clermont Livingston went on several years later to marry his cousin's widow, the next-door neighbor Mary Colden Swartout. John Henry remembered his father as being both very involved with his children and yet somewhat aloof.

He would join us in our games out of doors, & yet I can never remember any familiar jesting or romping. My father was dignity personified & we never would have dreamed of taking any liberties with him.

We know from his own farm journal that Clermont Livingston was also devoted to being a country gentleman. From 1856-1862 he kept a journal that detailed the success of the estate's farmland. "May 18, 1857: Fruit trees in blossom except apples." "May 25, 1858: Put out greenhouse plants."

The journal is a little limited in the information it provides so it is good to have it augmented by John Henry's description. "He was devoted to his country place, a good shot & a good horseman & devoted to his books & passed much of his time in reading." He also added, "to the day of his death my father always sat for preference in our dining room, where his easy chair & sofa were installed." The dining room, a bastion of formality in a nineteenth century home, would have been an odd place for regular relaxation.

From John Henry's writings we can also learn a little about what growing up at Clermont would be like in the 1850s. Like most boys in that era, John Henry wore dresses during his youngest years. "When I was four years old," he wrote, "I was promoted from dresses to trousers." We also know from the quote above that he and his sister Mary played outside together.

They were supervised by a 30-year-old Germantown local named Serena Minkler. John Henry remembered her fondly:

I have pleasant recollections of seeing my dinner put before me, which with a simple turn of the wrist I would deposit upon the floor should I not be in the mood for beef & potatoes, and Serena, all sympathy for such behavior, would run off downstairs to her kitchen to bring something more to my taste. Anything Johnnie wanted, Johnnie must have, could she procure it.

I can't help but wonder how Serena would have recounted the same story.

When John Henry and his sister were very young, they would most likely have been taught reading and religion by their father and step mother. He mentions having a book Aesop's Fables at one point; in particular he was terrified by its picture of a Satyr.

By 1856 though, it apparently came time to bring in a professional, and Clermont Livingston hired a Danish tutor for the children. Despite having donated the land that was used for the town school in 1834, the Livingstons educated their children with private tutors, another custom common to the wealthy of the nineteenth century.

The tutor moved into the gate house (now Sylvan Cottage) and there he taught not only John Henry and Mary, but also four neighboring de Peyster siblings (who were also cousins of John Henry's). "They always came late & never knew their lessons, but we all had the very best of times together," he wrote.

School at Clermont started at nine o'clock (they were up at six however) and included a lunch and half-hour recess like that experienced by many public school children. It was finished at two, and the afternoon was given to play. Some evening time was reserved for stufy. Bed time was at nine thirty.

It is a quirk of humanity that as we begin to age, that we notice the world has begun to change around us, and we begin to think it might be valuable to write down our fleeting recollections of the way things were. John Henry was not immune to this urge, and his writings have joined the many at Clermont that help us to understand life here on a personal level.


  1. Do any of John Henry's writings relate to The Edgewood Club of Tivoli?

  2. I haven't bumped into anything so far that refers to the Edgewood Club by John Henry. His largest interests seem to lie in capturing his family history for posterity. We have large, hand-drawn genealogical charts that he left behind.