Thursday, January 19, 2012

Henry Flagler's Doomed Wives

The magnificent Whitehall in Palm Beach. You should see it for yourself.
The ballroom in Whitehall.
This week in Paradise we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first train arriving in Key West, via Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. Some called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was also called Flagler’s Folly. Both names were accurate. Yes, it was a wonder that one man, Henry Flagler, had the vision of a train reaching from the mainland to Key West, and that the same man had the $25 million to finance the project. But it was a foolish and costly endeavor, and that makes it a folly, too. The railroad never turned a profit, ended up in bankruptcy, and was ultimately irreparably damaged by a hurricane.
    Stories, legends and myths surrounding the building of the railroad abound. The history that most intrigues me is Flagler’s marriages, and, via his wives, the disbursement of his fantastic fortune. 
Henry, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and wife #1, the sickly Mary Harkness.
    Flagler was 51 years old, and already a millionaire, when he became a widower. Soon after the first Mrs. Flagler died, he took a second wife. She was Alice Ida Shrouds, who’d been employed by Henry to nurse the sickly first Mrs. Flagler. Mr. and Mrs. Flagler honeymooned in St. Augustine, Florida. Shortly after the wedding, Alice Ida began communicating with other worlds via a Ouija board. She confided to her husband that she’d learned that it was her fate to marry the czar of Russia. In fact, Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, was then just 20 years away from his own strange fate, which was to be murdered, along with his wife and children, by the Bolsheviks in 1918. But who knows? Perhaps Alice Ida was right. Maybe she and Nicholas II were destined to meet and to unite in some other realm, at some other time. But to Henry Flagler, she just sounded nuts. He got a physician friend to agree that Alice Ida was mentally incompetent and had her committed to a sanitarium.    
Easy Mary Lily . . . he's an old man!
   Meanwhile, Flagler, a natural born entrepreneur, began exploring business opportunities in Florida. He was well aware of the area’s great potential and set his sights on creating what he called a new “American Riviera.”  As his mentally ill wife languished in a New York institution, Flagler completed the 1,100-room Royal Poinciana Hotel on the shores of Lake Worth in Palm Beach. The Royal Poinciana Hotel was at the time the largest wooden structure in the world. Two years later, Flagler built the Palm Beach Inn (renamed Breakers Hotel Complex in 1901) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach.
Whoever labeled this photo spelled Mary Lily's name wrong.
    Florida welcomed Henry Flagler, his money and his grand ideas for creating jobs and making more money. Somewhere along the way he was introduced to a Mary Lily Kenan, a singer and pianist. She was 24; Flagler was 70, and still a married man. Flagler took his problem in front of the the Florida legislature and they passed a bill that made incurable insanity grounds for divorce. Flagler divorced Ida and married Mary. Mary’s wedding gift was the luxurious Whitehall, a 60,000 square foot, 55-room mansion in Palm Beach that is today a museum with a fascinating story. What I recall as being the most remarkable room in Whitehall is the ballroom. Utterly fantastic. Our guide showed us the chairs upon which the Flagler’s would host many events. There was a piano, upon which Mary played. And there was a barely visible door, which lead to a secret stair that the aging Flagler would use to inconspicuously disappear to the comfort of his bedroom while young Mary and their guests partied till the wee hours. It was on that stairway that Flagler took the fall that led to his death at the age of 83. Flagler’s will left his wife Mary $108 million.
Flagler was a rambling man. Here is his own personal train car, the Rambler. See it for yourself at Whitehall in Palm Beach.

    Mary Lily Flagler next married Robert Bingham, a Kentucky politician. Before the wedding Bingham signed a prenuptial agreement, giving up claim to the Flagler fortune should his wife die before him. Eight months later, she died. One month before her death there had been a codicil added to her will, stating that upon her death her husband would receive $5 million.
Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine where you can see the graves of Henry and his first wife Mary Harkness.
    Mary Lily’s family was outraged, suspecting foul play. They arranged to have her body exhumed and autopsied at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. They promised the media that the results of the autopsy would be made public. But that never happened. The results remained a secret giving rise to wild speculation that she had been a user of laudanum (a form of opium) and had accidentally overdosed. There was also a rumor that Bingham was so furious at Mary Lily’s family for their interfering in the matter of his inheritance that he threatened to release a story to the press that she had died of syphilis if the family didn’t back off.
    Bingham’s fortune financed his purchase of the Louisville Courier newspaper, which survives to this day. The paper has also had an infamous history related to family and inherited money. But that’s another story, for another day. 
    Henry Flagler left $2 million in his will for his second wife, Crazy Alice Ida. She outlived him by 17 years, dying at the age of 82, and claiming, till the day she died, that her next husband would be a Russian czar.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Once He Built A Railroad

This bridge, the Long Key Viaduct, is now part of the US 1 Overseas Highway.
On the centennial anniversary of the completion of the Flagler’s famous folly, the Florida Keys Overseas Railroad, the man behind the monumental undertaking, that irascible old millionaire Henry Flagler, is once again in the news. Were it not for his trailblazing tenacity, the Overseas Highway, our well-worn thoroughfare to the mainland, most certainly would not exist. That’s the news. But there’s so much more to the story.
Flagler's folly, the East Coast Railroad, arriving in Key West for the very first time, January 22, 1912.
    Flagler’s railroad cost him $25 million. He’d made his vast fortune in Standard Oil, the company he founded with John D. Rockefeller. Flagler was told that his idea was insane. But he persisted.
    Key West was the very last in a chain of coral rock islands, overgrown by subtropical jungle, mostly untouched by civilization, and separated by varying spans of ten to thirty-feet-deep ocean water. More than half of the planned railroad would have to traverse water. When asked about his crazy plan, Flagler said “It is perfectly simple. All you have to do is build one concrete arch, and then another, and pretty soon you will find yourself in Key West.”
    Five hundred men lost their lives before the job was done. The work was backbreaking and fraught with sub-tropics sun, humidity, mosquitos and disease. Alcohol was strictly forbidden to the men, and so a cutthroat bootlegging industry bustled just outside the worker's camps.
Pineapple harvesting. Rough work.
    Meanwhile, the pineapple growers of the Florida Keys, watched and waited with high hopes for the future, when the railroad would provide them with a trade route for their pineapples to the busy markets of the east coast. 
    The Overseas Railroad chugged into Key West for the first time on January 22, 1912. Soon the train simply drove right onto a ferry that carried it to Havana, where it was loaded down with passengers and . . . pineapples. It was cheaper to ship the Cuban pineapples north than to stop at the Keys stations for their more expensive fruit. Between the cheaper trade from Cuba and the hurricanes, the pineapple growers of the Keys were wiped out. Forever.
     From the very start, the train business was besieged with problems. The train never ran on time, mostly due to weather. The tradewinds made bridge crossings dangerous and slow. Passengers were scarce. The train never began to turn a profit to pay for its construction. It didn’t even make enough profit to pay for its upkeep. Twenty years after its grand completion, in 1932, the railroad went into bankruptcy.
Flagler knew the Panama Canal was coming in 1914. Key West had the closest U.S. deep water harbor.
    Still, the train ran, and those who rode it recall it as one of the most memorable experiences of their lives. Wilhelmina Harvey, onetime Monroe County Mayor and Key West native, once described to me the experience of taking the train to New York. She was a little girl and recalled climbing aboard the train and watching out the windows as the train rode up the Keys. On the bridges, she said, it seemed that the train rode on water, the train and passengers spectacularly suspended between the sky and sea. She would be put into her little berth bed in the Keys, she said, and would awaken to an entirely new vista outside, of oak and fir trees, the train having arrived on the mainland during the night.
    Other frequent passengers on the railroad were the Hemingways, who lived in Key West during the 1930s and traveled often to the mainland.    
This is the end, my friend. September, 1935.
    In 1935 the infamous Labor Day Hurricane, the gargantuan storm that killed hundreds of people, and tore a naked swath through the jungle-like Florida Keys, also destroyed over 40 miles of the roadbed. The Overseas Railroad’s receivers decided that rather than spending several million dollars to repair the damage, they would sell it to the highest bidder. The State of Florida paid $640,000 for all of the railroad property, including the rail bed and its remarkable bridges. One bridge alone cost Flagler over $640,000 to build. There are forty-two of them. Upon the path blazed by Flagler and many millions of dollars, and his workers' gallons of sweat, blood and tears, a highway was constructed and completed in 1938.
    When you drive to Key West, and cross the mighty bridges that have miraculously withstood the test of time, you can thank Henry Flagler for making it possible. And then, you might ask yourself, who was this Henry Flagler who amassed such a fortune in the days before income taxes and had the audacity, at the very end of his long life, to demand the building of a railroad doomed to fail?
    For that information you’ll need to come here next week, when I will tell you the fascinating story of Flagler’s three wives, and the divvying up his great fortune after his death in 1913. 
    See you Thursday!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Provocative Art of the Tear Jerk

What's going on in your back seat?
 Yesterday Michael and I saw the The Descendants, now playing at the incredibly cool Tropic Cinema, located just a short hike away from our house. As always Michael examined reviews of the movie before agreeing to see it. The reviews were good, he reported. And so we went. In the bustle of people leaving the theater, as we waited on line to buy tickets, I heard a woman say: “I used every Kleenex in my purse!” and assumed she had seen the Marilyn Monroe film, Marilyn’s being one of the most heartbreakingly poignant stories imaginable.
Key West's Tropic Theater: a treasure
    The Descendants is set in Hawaii, and features scenes of not only downtown Honolulu, and the bustling tourist center of Waikiki, but also sweeping and magnificent images of pristine areas on other, less frequented Hawaiian islands. George Clooney very artfully plays the husband of a mortally wounded woman, comatose on her deathbed, as the drama of her demise plays out. It is sad. And funny. And authentic, but for the fact that the husband is a multimillionaire. In the very beginning of the film, he narrates that when people know you live in a place like Hawaii, a paradise, they don’t think you experience life’s darker truths. But it is true, he assures us, that people in Hawaii suffer deadly cancers and addictions and boat accidents just like they do everywhere else on the planet.
Inside the Tropic, voted the best movie theater in Florida!
    Where can this go? Just where you think it will of course. The story plays out. We learn terrible secrets about the wife and about her husband’s regrets. We see children losing their mother. Elderly parents losing their adult child. As the story spooled toward it’s inevitable end, the sound of tearful sighs, nose-blowing and sniffling came from every corner of the theater. I saw Michael’s eyes shining with brimming tears. But I wasn’t buying it. I don’t like being played like a violin.  
    Later Michael said that the experience reminded him of seeing the movie Love Story, in a packed to the brim New York City theater, full of hard-bitten New Yorkers, who sniffled and sobbed every time the heroine or the hero spoke the immortal words: “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  If only!
    I was reminded of seeing the film West Side Story, which came around when I was 10 years old. I saw it with my cousin, who was older, wiser, and, in my mind’s eye, cooler than me in every way imaginable. Everyone seemed to be sniveling, but not her. She didn’t cry. So I wouldn’t cry. I think I sprained something deep in my throat, and perhaps my soul, with the effort.
    This morning I talked with son Miguel. I told him about the film. He said he believes that people like sob stories; they appeal to the voyeuristic instinct in all of us. We know of life’s inevitable truths — loss and death — but when, as children, we watch Bambi, or Old Yeller, or Charlotte’s Web, we witness someone else's tragedy. Not our own. We get to leave the theater, go home, unscathed, our Kleenex used and tossed into the trash along with our temporary heartache.
Where do I begin?
    When I slogged through cancer treatments, radiation and chemotherapy, I felt pretty awful, but I never imagined that I would die. Chemo takes you right to the brink of death, hopefully without killing you along with the cancer cells. It’s pathetic indeed. I felt truly sorry for those who love me having to bear witness to my suffering. But I survived. We all did. And when it was all over, when I went back to work and rejoined the human race, people had many questions about my cancer, my prognosis, and my feelings about it.
    I soon realized that I wasn’t the only one in denial of my destiny. We all are. No matter how green your paradise, no matter how many millions in your bank account, no matter how wonderful or horrible you are, you will die. So I say live creatively, love lavishly, create irony, so that when the tragedy of your death occurs, perhaps the drama of your story will be fodder for a Golden Globe-winning, tear-jerking film. The world will cry for you. And you will go down in cinematic history.