Friday, May 7, 2010

It’s the Weekend! Have a Cocktail.

Today a colleague was telling me about her favorite cocktail: the French 75 Cocktail. It sounds yummy. Cognac, champagne, lemon juice and simple syrup. It “hits with remarkable precision.”

Did you know that St. Louis is where the cocktail party originated? Legend says that it was thrown here by Mrs. Julius S. Walsh, Jr. in 1917 at 4510 Lindell Blvd. I looked that address up on a map and that would have been in what is now the Central West End, just west of where the Saint Louis Cathedral Basilica is. The Cathedral would have been new back then; it was completed in 1914 (although the interior mosaic work wasn’t completed until much later). In fact, the house was later purchased by the Archdiocese to be the archbishop's residence. Mrs. Walsh's party was at noon, which seems a bit early for cocktails to me.

Sauce Magazine ran a little article about that cocktail party and tracked down the first name of Mrs. Walsh. Clara. They tracked it by a wedding announcement from Lexington Kentucky on January 2, 1906: “The wedding of Miss Clara D.D. Bell, of Lexington, and Julius S. Walsh, Jr., of St. Louis, was celebrated at Bell Place, the home of her mother, Mrs. Arthur Cary. The wedding was attended by hundreds of guests from a distance and was the most notable affair in the history of Lexington society.”

Oh my. So I decided to Google Bell Place and, what do you know, it still exists and it was built by Clara’s family. Her parents, David D. Bell and Sydney Sayre Bell, inherited a Greek Revival house in Lexington, called Woodside.

Shortly after the birth of their only child, Clara Davis Bell (1884-1957), Woodside was largely destroyed by fire. Bell employed Cincinnati architect Samuel Eugene Des Jardins (1856-1916) to reconstruct the house, a task completed in late 1885. David D. Bell died in 1892, but not until he had completed his will, an instrument which dictated that the property, now called Bell Place, was to be subdivided into multiple lots for the purpose of providing for Clara's maintenance, education, and future. In 1895 Bell's widow married Arthur Cary (1841-1927), an attorney and president of the Kentucky Union Land Company and the Kentucky Union Land Railroad, and president of the Lexington and Eastern Railroad when it became part of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad in 1914. They remained at Bell House on a four and a half acre tract while the remainder of the property was subdivided into 134 lots in 1906. In the meantime, Clara Bell married Julius Sylvester Walsh, Jr., the son of a wealthy St. Louis scion, and the couple moved to an apartment in New York City's Plaza Hotel.

Hmmpf. No mention of their time in St. Louis or Clara’s trend setting cocktail party.

I was sorry to read the following from that same source: “Following a divorce in the 1930s she continued to live in high society and was a well-known celebrity.” So Clara and Julius didn’t last. But no! That’s not what happened. Here’s her obituary from Time Magazine:

Died. Clara Bell Walsh, 70-odd ("none of your business"), widow of St. Louis, Millionaire Julius S. Walsh Jr. (died 1922), lavish Manhattan hostess who had a suite in the Plaza Hotel for nearly 50 years, and whose intimate soirees of "200 or so" friends were the starting point of many a Broadway career; of a cerebral hemorrhage; in Manhattan.

So Julius died! Young too. And don’t you just love Clara’s (“none of your business”) age? Sounds like my grandma.

Through the magic of Google Books I learned even more. From the Edgar Cayce Handbook for Help Through Drugless Therapy I learned this about Clara:

One of my favorite patients was Clara Belle [sic] Walsh. A tall blond of Wagnerian proportions, and nearly six feet tall, Clara Belle was the heiress of a great old Kentucky family and was internationally famous as a hostess, a theater and music patron, and an intimate personal friend of England’s Queen Mary.

She sponsored many great performers and artists, and I particularly remember meeting Vincent Lopez, then unknown, in her suite at the Plaza Hotel, where she held court when in New York. One day she casually informed us in a matter-of-fact voice that Lopez was the reincarnation of (according to a Cayce life reading) Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo had been left handed which was why Lopez always conducted with his left hand.

Mrs. Walsh had one painful physical complaint. Her legs were elegantly slim but her left knee was arthritic and had a spur. Occasionally the knee would hook up on the spur and cause swelling and excruciating pain. When this would happen, she would send for me, I would hasten to the Plaza Hotel, apply packs to reduce the swelling and work to unlock the knee from the spur. This gave her immediate relief. Once I was out of town when her knee became hooked up for four or five days and developed a terrible inflammation. She had called in the doctor from the Plaza Hotel and he gave her drugs – but not even the strongest narcotic had any effect on her. She was in excruciating pain. When the Plaza’ doctor called in a specialist, he suggested opening the knee or, if necessary, amputating the leg at the knee.

The doctor telling the story saves Mrs. Walsh from amputation. I won’t go on about the involvement of the psychic Edgar Cayce because I find it a little absurd. But at least Clara wasn’t amputated.

I also found a book called Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel and read this:

Clara Bell Walsh, a Kentucky debutante, first set foot in The Plaza on October 1, 1907, and never lived anywhere else until they carried her out the front door to a funeral home on August 2, 1957.

Well, then. She couldn’t have been living in St. Louis in 1917, could she? Through further digging on Google I found that St. Louis historians had already addressed that issue. The famous cocktail party was at the home of her father-in-law. “In 1917, Clara Bell Walsh hosted a party at the home of her father-in-law that has come to be known as the first cocktail party.” Well, that explains it. (It appears that her father-in-law was at the time in the middle of an ugly lawsuit involving a family business in which he had been sued by a nephew. The case was ultimately decided by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1920. Maybe she threw the party because she knew he needed a stiff drink.)

Becoming interested in Clara’s father in law I found out that his mother was Isabel DeMun. If you are not from St. Louis that name might not mean much to you, but if you are you might at least recognize the name DeMun from the street and neighborhood just outside the western City Limits (near St. Mary’s Hospital). Ah, an old French name, I thought. From one of the RICH old French St. Louis families. Isabel’s mother was a Gratiot (another street name in St. Louis) and Isabel’s maternal grandparents were Charles Gratiot and Victoire Chouteau. Yes, one of those Chouteaus – founders of St. Louis and of a fur trading fortune. Of course their descendents did well. For instance, Isabel’s aunt was married to Robert Barnes who founded Barnes Hospital. So Clara Bell married into St. Louis’s version of royalty.

I began to wonder what Clara looked like and found that (of course) Life Magazine had done a spread on her. But the photo was taken when she was older. There are no Google images of her when she was younger. But maybe someday one will be published. It would be very appropriate if she were holding a cocktail glass.