Love, Fiercely: A Gilded age Romance

Lately I seem to be reading and enjoying a lot of books, both fiction and non, set during the last half of the 19th century. I’ve just finished another terrific non-fiction story about Edith Minturn (nicknamed Fiercely) and her husband Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes.

Set in New York City, Love, Fiercely, is much more than a story of the courtship and marriage of these two individuals, it’s a history of New York City and the über wealthy class of society of which they were a part.

Jean Zimmerman has a gift for telling the life story of Edith and Newton whilst weaving a superabundance of detailed, historical facts throughout the narrative and never making the reader feel bogged down with information. The story just flows from her pen and sets a picture of how New York City evolved and changed during the lifetimes of these two individuals.

Edith and Newton’s families came from old money and had long roots in Manhattan. Both of them were a part of the New York that still had open fields and farmland, where homes were large and were surrounded by lots of land. But that was all changing rapidly.

“By the turn of the century, the leafy streets of lower New York had lost their shade. Kitchen gardens and flower beds disappeared, the ponds and streams had been channeled underground, boulders excavated, earth leveled, topography smoothed. Virtually every trace of the old Dutch colony of New Amsterdam had long since been erased. It was true what city residents said:  the reason they called it New York was that nothing was allowed to grow old there.”

Edith was older(28) when she and Newton married and lived an unusually unconventional life as a single woman for the time period. She gained notoriety when she modeled for the statue, The Republic, the centerpiece for the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 and was very civic-minded, as was Newton. It wasn’t easy for her to decide to marry and give up her freedom, but they seemed to be well suited for one another and had a long and happy marriage.

The cover of the book is the painting by John Singer Sargent, Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes. The portrait was a wedding present from James Scrimser and embodies the personality and spirit of Edith, a modern woman, strong, tough and fierce with introverted Newton hiding in the shadows. The painting is currently hanging in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

Newton became an architect and a champion for the poor but he spent many years, and most of his money, collecting maps, prints, documents and photographs to include in his history of New York City. The Iconography of Manhattan Island is a massive 6 volume set that took over 19 years to complete and drained his fortune. But his foresight in saving these one of a kind items has proved invaluable to scholars throughout the generations.

An extremely readable book about the history of Manhattan and the upper crust that populated it during the Gilded Age. I highly recommend it!

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