Saturday, January 18, 2014

Growing up Livingston: Part 2, Getting to know John Henry Livingston

I started this series of entries after a day of discovery in Clermont's historic photo files.  It turns out looking into the faces of the Livingstons, whose letters and intimate lives I am always reading, adds a whole new dimension to "getting to know" them.  In fact, after looking at enough photos, it's almost like watching them grow up.

So here I go with a few more Livingstons for you to get to know:

John Henry Livingston (1848-1927)

There aren't very many photographs of John Henry.  Having been born in the mid 19th century, photography was still reasonably new in his youth, and neither his dad nor he really seemed to see a need to jump on the band wagon.  Therefore, every time I find a new photo of John Henry the youth, I get fairly excited.  here is what I've managed to put together on him:

John Henry was eventually to become the patriarch or Clermont and the keeper (in his generation) of the Livingston family history, but you'd never really know that from looking at his childhood portrait with his sister Mary.  Here he looks to be all of four or five years old, putting this image around 1852 or '53, only a year or two after he lost his mother to illness.  In just a few years John Henry would start his formal education with a tutor up at Sylvan Cottage, the gatehouse by Clermont's entrance off what is now Woods Rd.

Although there were several de Peyster cousins in the class as well, he and Mary turned out to be the more studious, rising at 6 o'clock every morning before having their breakfast with their father at 8 and walking quarter mile up the road to be in school by 9.  The de Peysters apparently "always came late & never knew their lessons," but the children "always had the best of times together," according to John Henry's later recollections.

 John Henry's next appearance in photographs is from around 1865, right before entering Columbia University at 17 (above at left).  He's still got a bit of a baby face, and it makes him reasonably recognizable from his earlier picture.  Without anyone else in the photo for comparison, it is hard to tell that this young man was (or was very soon to be) 6' 5" tall and loosed on the streets of 19th century New York City.  I only wish I knew some stories from this era of his life!

But all of that childishness melts away by the time you get to the photograph used on his late-19th century poster running for US congress.  Now a widower with a teenage daughter, John Henry had been practicing law since the 1870s, and his face has developed what I'm more familiar with as its characteristic severity. He's grown a mustache, perhaps to soften his face a bit, and he kept that until the end of his life.

In 1906 he married his third wife Alice Delafield Clarkson.
  Their wedding photo (at left) is unmistakably John Henry, even though the photographer managed to capture him with his eyes awkwardly half-closed.

Alice snapped quite a lot of photos, but once they had two daughters, she tended to focus the camera on them.  It's hard to find good images that really capture John Henry's face, but there are a few.  This one, from the early 1910s still shows him with the stiff, starched collar that contributed to an air of dignity.  He is in Clermont's library, probably right around the time Alice was converting it from a billiards room to a family room.

In the years that followed though, I can find only a few images that really show John Henry very well.  His daughters were reaching their teens and stealing the spotlight perhaps.  Or perhaps he was simply feeling a bit isolated as his deafness increased.  At left you can see him in England in the early 1920s, still healthy enough to climb a rather steep-looking hill and share a family picnic, though he is well into his 70s.  The mustache has staid and so has the stiff collar.  He's still ever-so-thin, which only accentuates his height. 

In all his photographs, except for maybe his wedding photo with Alice, John Henry looks serious and even severe.  I like to think there was more to him, but there are few stories which I can draw on to broaden the picture.  His "recollections," drawn up in his later years do nothing to counteract this impression, though they do reveal a lot of affection for his father and his nanny Serena.  His life certainly wasn't without fun, but it was also filled with a lot of loss: his only sister, her husband, and both of their children all passed away young.  He lost two wives, and for a few years was estranged from his eldest daughter.  Towards the end of his life, he seemed to find the greatest peace and pride in his family: both his youngest daughters and his Livingston ancestry.  It is both he and Alice who sought to revive Clermont as the home of Chancellor Livingston, and the decision to make the house a museum seems to have come from their joint conversations.  All-in-all there is a lot more I'd like to know about John Henry the individual that his photographs can only just begin to hint at.

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