About two miles up the road from the Bartow mansion—near the border of Pelham and New Rochelle, New York—24-year-old Mary “Minny” Temple (1845–1870) died of tuberculosis on March 8, 1870. Her first cousin the novelist Henry James (1843–1916) received the sad tidings at the English spa town of Malvern in a letter from his mother, “news more strange & painful than I can find words to express,” he replied.
Minny was full of life and energy. She was unaffected, an independent thinker, a lively and opinionated conversationalist, at times an irreverent rebel, and—sometimes—a dreamer. Her brilliant smile lit up a room. At 16, she cropped off all of her hair to half an inch and had a photograph taken. Minny enjoyed going to balls and to the opera. She liked to “knock about all day in a sleigh” in “the fresh air and sunshine,” as she wrote to her friend John Chipman Gray. She also fantasized about joining Henry James in Europe despite her illness, and she had a deep longing to meet the author George Eliot—whom she greatly admired as both a person and a writer—as her literary cousin did. Her close friends and contemporaries were intellectual and often artistic, and her social circle included the artist Helena de Kay, the painter Lizzie Boott (who married the artist Frank Duveneck), the future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Henry’s brother, the philosopher and psychologist William James. Minny’s luminous personality—bursting with intelligence and vitality—was magnetic.
James writes about Minny at length in his autobiography Notes of a Son and Brother. “She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder,” he wrote. She was “an asker of endless questions.” In a letter to his mother dated March 26, 1870, James remembers his cousin’s “wonderful ethereal brightness of presence which was so peculiarly her own.” He mourns her early death and wistfully confides: “It comes home to me with irresistible power, the sense how much I knew her & how much I loved her.” Now “she is dead—silent—absent forever.”
James brought his cousin back to life in several of his most important novels. Minny appears loosely as a free-spirited American abroad in Daisy Miller (1878). Later, in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), she is resurrected as Isabel Archer, the unforgettable, headstrong heroine of what is perhaps the author’s finest novel. Finally, Minny Temple inspired the character of Milly Theale—the doomed protagonist of James’s late novel The Wings of the Dove (1902)—whose poignant struggle and premature death from a long illness recalls Minny’s own life cut short.
Minny Temple was born on December 7, 1845, to Colonel Robert Emmet Temple and his wife, Catherine James Temple, of Albany, New York. (Minny’s mother was the sister of Henry James Sr.) In 1854, when the couple died of tuberculosis, their six surviving children—two boys and four girls—went to live with relatives, spending time in Albany, Newport, Cambridge, and Pelham/New Rochelle, among other places.
The Temple and James families were both related to the Emmet family of New Rochelle. Today New Rochelle is a densely populated suburban city, but in the 19th century, country estates dotted the area. These properties were owned by wealthy New Yorkers, such as the Emmets, who enjoyed being away from the city but close to the metropolis and near Long Island Sound. The Emmets were descended from the Irish patriot and lawyer Thomas Addis Emmet, an Anglo-Irish protestant who was imprisoned and exiled after taking up the nationalist cause. He immigrated to the United States in 1804. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, several Emmet women had careers as well-known artists.
The three families—James, Temple, and Emmet—became even more entwined when the eldest Temple sister, Katherine (“Kitty”), married Richard “Dick” Stockton Emmet at Christ Church, Pelham, on September 29, 1868. The middle-aged bridegroom was more than 20 years older than the bride. As Lyndall Gordon writes in A Private Life of Henry James, “the marriage would enable Kitty to provide a home for her sisters.” A year later, another sister, Ellen (“Elly”) James Temple, married the groom’s brother, Christopher Temple Emmet. Minny wrote to Henry James about her sister’s “startling” engagement in a letter from Pelham dated August 15, 1869, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. “He is 28 years older than Elly—being forty-seven. We were all a good deal astonished by her engagement. . . . She is very happy, & they are both, apparently, very much in love with each other. . . . Kitty’s little venture in the way of marrying one’s grandfather has turned out so well, that I ought to feel quite safe about Elly.” Shortly after the wedding, Henry James wrote to his father, “I don’t a bit like Elly marrying that Methusaleh [sic].” (Methuselah was the Biblical patriarch who lived to be 969 years old, according to Genesis.)
Although Minny wrote to her various correspondents from her sister Kitty’s home in “Pelham,” the house was almost certainly the one that belonged to Kitty’s husband in the contiguous town of New Rochelle. This is a distinction that James scholars have overlooked, but it is of special interest for those of us who know the area well. The confusion is understandable because four Emmet family houses stood along a half-mile stretch in Pelham and New Rochelle on today’s Shore Road/Pelham Road. (The street name changes at the border.)
The house that once stood at 197 Weyman Avenue and Pelham Road in New Rochelle belonged to Richard Stockton Emmet, Kitty Temple’s husband and Minny’s brother-in-law. Some maps indicate that his acreage may have extended to what is today part of the Pelham Country Club golf course. There are no known images of the house, and its date of construction is unknown, but according to the Emmet family website, the house was built by Richard S. Emmet’s father, Robert Emmet, as a country house in the 1830s. This is presumably where Minny died while living with her sister Kitty.
Three additional Emmet family houses were very closely situated to each other and appear consecutively on the 1870 New Rochelle census. The so-called Kemble House (also known as “Emmet Cottage”) still stands today at 145 Shore Road; the Pelham-New Rochelle border cuts directly through it. The original section of the home was built before the American Revolution. By 1870, the year of Minny’s death, ownership had passed to Lydia Hubley Emmet (Kitty and Elly’s unmarried sister-in-law), and at that time, the household included a number of Emmets, including C. Temple Emmet and his young wife, Elly (Minny’s sister). A few years later, it was the site of a notorious robbery by a gang of masked bandits. Early in the morning of December 23, 1873, the robbers handcuffed and gagged several members of the Emmet family and their servants before ransacking the house and breaking into the safe. The burglars were soon captured by the police and brought to trial.
The next household on the 1870 New Rochelle census was that of another Emmet brother, William Jenkins Emmet, his wife and children, and their servants. They lived on Sheffield Island (known today as Travers Island), which was at that time connected to Shore Road by a short causeway. An 1868 map shows two dwellings on Sheffield Island. “Sedgemere,” the house on the south side, is labeled “W. J. Emmet.” (William Jenkins Emmet and his wife, the painter Julia Colt Pierson Emmet, were the parents of the artists Rosina Emmet Sherwood, Lydia Field Emmet, and Jane Erin Emmet de Glehn. Emmet’s Sedgemere Diary has been digitized by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.) The house on the north side is labeled “R. W. Edgar,” which refers to the third Emmet household on the 1870 census, that of Robert White Edgar and his wife, Jane Emmet LeRoy Edgar, an Emmet cousin. In addition, the Edgars were the niece and nephew of Herman LeRoy Jr. and his wife, Juliet Edgar LeRoy, from whom in 1836, Robert and Maria Bartow purchased the estate that had belonged to Bartow’s grandfather.
Minny frequently corresponded with her good friend, the Harvard legal scholar John Chipman Gray. In a letter to him from Pelham dated January 27, 1869 (now in the Houghton Library at Harvard), she wrote: Kitty “takes good care of me & all the Emmets are so good & kind, that I found, when it came to the point, that there was a good deal that made life attractive, & that if the choice were given to me, I would a good deal rather stay up here, on the solid earth, in the air and sunshine . . . than to be put down, under the earth, and say good bye forever to humanity—with all its laughter and its sadness.” In a letter to Gray written on January 7, she told him: “I like to be out here in the country, and Kitty likes to have me with her. This being the case, her husband makes such a clamor when I propose to leave, that I am easily persuaded by his kindness and my own want of energy, to stay where I am. It is great fun living out here.”
Minny also enjoyed going in to New York City. “We are so near the town, that we go in very often, for the day, & do a little shopping, lunch with some of our numerous friends, and come out again, with a double relish for the country. We all went in, on a spree, the other night, & stayed at the Everett House, from which, as a starting point, we poured in in strong force, upon Mrs. Gracie King’s ball, a very grand affair, given for a very pretty Miss King, at Del Monico’s [sic]. On this occasion the raiding party consisted of thirteen Emmets & a moderate supply of Temples.” (Letter from Minny Temple to John Chipman Gray, January 7, 1869, Houghton Library, Harvard University)
In February 1869, about a year before her death, Henry James visited Minny on his way to an extended stay in Europe. In Notes of a Son and Brother, he describes seeing “her again, in the old-time Pelham parlours, ever so erectly slight and . . . so transparently, fair (I fatuously took this for ‘becoming’), glide as swiftly, toss her head as characteristically, laugh to as free a disclosure of the handsome largeish teeth that made her mouth almost the main fact of her face. . . . The house was quiet and spacious for the day, after the manner of all American houses of that age at those hours, and yet spoke of such a possible muster at need of generous, gregarious, neighbouring, sympathising Emmets.” Is James describing the Emmet house on Weyman Avenue in New Rochelle?
Henrietta Temple, the youngest sister of Minny, Kitty, and Elly, was not far away. In 1870, she was a boarder at the Pelham Priory school, which was run by Nanette and Adele Bolton, the daughters of the Reverend Robert Bolton, an Episcopal minister who founded the school and was the first rector of Christ Church, Pelham. Christ Church archives reveal that in 1872 the Emmet family sat in pews 10 and 13, and Henrietta Temple shared pew 16 with the Bolton sisters. Today, a large stained-glass window in the sanctuary memorializes Katharine Temple Emmet and Richard Stockton Emmet.
As the hemorrhaging in her lungs worsened, Minny was examined by the doctors, who at times gave her contradictory and confusing reports. “The problem still bothers me,” she confided to John Chipman Gray on March 4, 1869, after being told that her lungs were “a pair that a prize-fighter might covet,” while being ordered to stay in the country and “not to get excited, nor to listen to music, nor to speak to anybody.” “Either sound lungs are a very dangerous things to possess, or there is a foul conspiracy on foot to oppress me.” Despite the many physical and mental setbacks that she describes in her letters, Minny faced her illness with bravery, humor, and hope.
On the day of Minny’s death, Tuesday, March 8, 1870, the ground was covered with about eight inches of snow, and the New York Times reported that hundreds of people went ice skating in the city after the previous night’s storm had passed. As for Minny, her struggle was finally over. The funeral was on March 11 at Christ Church, the beautiful little stone building in Pelham with stained-glass windows designed by William Jay Bolton. According to the church register, Minny was buried in Beechwoods Cemetery, New Rochelle, where her sister Kitty and other Emmets were later interred. Henry James wrote his mother on March 26, “I resent their having buried her at N. Rochelle. She ought to be among her own people.” In 1910, Minny was moved to Albany Rural Cemetery, where she now lies with the Temple and James families.
In March 2020, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her death, we remember the promise of Minny Temple’s short life and recognize the inspiration that she provided for one of our finest American authors.
Margaret Highland, Historian