Brow Beat

Meet Marie Wilmerding, the Vanderbilt Heiress Who Was Involuntarily Institutionalized After Drinking and Smoking Her Way Across Europe

A profile shot of Marie Wilmerding, a Gilded Age socialite.
Marie Wilmerding.
New York Journal & Advertiser / Library of Congress

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a committee of older men to lock her up in a sanitarium against her wishes and take control of her estate. That’s part of the sad story of Marie Wilmerding, a Gilded Age society belle who was sent to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in White Plains, New York after selling some of her estate at a loss to fund a manic whisky-and-absinthe-fueled visit with her dying father in Capri in 1898. The father in question was Colonel Vanderbilt Allen, son of Ethelinda Vanderbilt, who was herself the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and that’s where the money enters the picture. (Not that much money, though: Cornelius had 13 children but left almost all of his fortune to his son William.) Vanderbilt Allen was a notorious figure in the society pages in his own right: His own father sued him to recover the money he’d advanced him as a child after being cut out of Ethelinda’s will, and his divorce battle with his second wife—Marie’s mother had died when she was five—was a three-year scandal. But Wilmerding outdid her father: In March, shortly after her father’s 1898 death in Capri (cirrhosis of the liver, naturally), her society friends were surprised to discover that her uncle Franklin Allen had secretly had her committed about a month earlier.

Physicians at Bloomingdale said that she was insensible and dying of paresis—but that wasn’t the impression she gave that fall, when her friends were finally able to get her in front of a judge to speak for herself. In sensational testimony, Wilmerding gave her life story, from boarding schools to a miserable arranged marriage—her husband famously threw a plate of ice cream at her at Delmonico’s—to wild nights drinking and smoking in Capri, expressing fierce resentment of her stepmother, her husband, and the people who were keeping her confined. The hearing received national coverage, and different papers picked up different details: The New York Times has her coldly pointing out that one of the lawyers arguing for her commitment had helped her father negotiate the sale of her mother’s tomb, while the San Francisco Examiner published an essay ostensibly written by Wilmerding that ended with this blunt assessment of her situation:

I have never been insane. If I were dying, I would still repeat that. It is an outrage that I am here. It is an outrage that I ever came here. 

Wilmerding was successful in securing her own release, but her fortunes didn’t improve. Out of money, she made an attempt to become an actress, debuting in a vaudeville sketch at the Lenox Lyceum in 1900. “Now that [my estate] has been dissipated by others and I have no estate left to manage, I have been adjudged competent to manage it,” she told reporters. She was cast as an extra on Broadway in Charlotte Blair Parker’s Under Southern Skies, but was fired, reportedly after falling off the wagon. In 1902, she washed up in San Francisco, where it was reported that she was attending downscale parties unescorted and writing, “I shall do as I please,” in letters to her horrified friends. In 1905, she made the news for escaping from another sanitarium where she’d once again been involuntarily confined, this time in Harlem—she literally used the “pillows under the blanket” trick—and claimed to have only 20 cents to her name.

After winning her release yet again, she cut ties with her family and travelled to Europe, resurfacing in 1907 when she had her second husband, an Englishman named Jimmy Coates, arrested in Harlem for mistreating her. She’d never legally divorced her first husband, who described Coates as a “former valet of a prominent Fifth Avenue clubman” in his divorce suit, and the society pages were briefly scandalized one last time before banishing her for good. When she shot herself in 1922 in Philadelphia, apparently despondent about her second husband’s death, the Inquirer—which had breathlessly covered her institutionalization, her theatrical career, and her second marriage—was puzzled and skeptical. “Woman Suicide In Note Asserts Relationship to Vanderbilt Family,” they reported.

Now here is Marie Wilmerding at age 26, during the first inquiry into her sanity, in an account published in the Chicago Tribune on August 10, 1898. –Matthew Dessem

NEW YORK BUREAU CHICAGO TRIBUNE, New York, Aug. 9. – Mrs. Jack Wilmerding, a great-granddaughter of old Commodore Vanderbilt, was the victim of a three-hour inquisition in the courthouse at White Plains today, as the result of proceedings instituted by friends for the purpose of securing her release from Bloomingdale asylum, where she is incarcerated as an insane person.

Her examination by a commissioner was ordered a fortnight ago, after Justice Keogh of the Supreme Court had listened to arguments pro and con evoked by Lawyer Louis Levy’s application for a writ of habeas corpus.

Justice Keogh had named Dr. Carlos MacDonald of this city, Dr. H. Ernest Schmid of White Plains, and former Congressman Eugene B. Travis commissioners to examine into Mrs. Wilmerding’s present mental condition. The members of the commission assembled in the County Court room at 10 o’clock this morning and took the oath simultaneously.

As soon as the commissioners had qualified a court officer entered by a side door escorting Mrs. Wilmerding. The fair plaintiff wore a white shirt waist, a dark cloth skirt, a modish straw hat trimmed with black feathers and veil, and brown gloves. She carried a Japanese fan and a newspaper.

Mrs. “Jack” is more beautiful than when she last appeared in her box at the Metropolitan Opera-House, an acknowledged belle of the Four Hundred. She smiled and nodded to the lawyers as she took her seat, and chatted nonchalantly with the two female nurses who had accompanied her to the asylum.

When her name was called by the court officer she calmly settled her draperies and walked to the witness chair with a buoyant step. She laid her hand on the Bible and nodded as she emphatically answered “I do” to the query form of the prescribed oath.

Lawyer Levy made a brief statement of his interest in Mrs. Wilmerding’s behalf and told of his long connection with the affairs of herself and her father, the late Colonel Vanderbilt Allen.

“She is a friendless orphan,” said Levy, “whose relatives have immured her in an asylum without ever producing her for the court.”

“My name is Marie Fatimah Allen Wilmerding; I am 26 years old.” Mrs. “Jack” replied in a full musical voice, but seemed for the moment a bit nervous.

If memory be a criterion of sanity Mrs. “Jack” is certainly a sane woman. With an occasional pause to count back years and months, the young woman tersely and succinctly accounted for her time and actions since her mother, first wife of Colonel Vanderbilt Allen, died.

“That was when I was 5 years old,” said Mrs. “Jack.” She then told of her boarding school days, a visit to Europe, back to the United States, and again to Europe, then back to the United States again.

“When we came from Europe we moved to Milford., Pa., and there I met the woman who became my father’s third wife. She was a Miss North. Afterwards we all went to Newport.

Mrs. Wilmerding’s black eyes flashed, she paused a moment, and then said dramatically: “Soon after, that woman succeeded in marrying me to Jack Wilmerding.”

Only a suggestion was required to make Mrs. “Jack” say unpleasant things about her stepmother-in-law, and bitter things about the husband who has deserted her in her extremity.

“I was obliged to marry Jack Wilmerding,” said Mrs. “Jack” solemnly, “by the influence that woman brought to bear upon my father. Even his people opposed the marriage. They knew and said that he had no business to get married.

“Jack Wilmerding was a brute. Why, he struck me in the face in a ballroom even before we were married. I was obliged to marry him under threats that my character would be ruined if I didn’t. We were married in Grace Church in 1892, and lived at Orange, at Staten Island, and in Clinton place. I led a horrible life with him. He beat me, and insulted me, and cried our troubles from the rooftops. In the Clinton place house he abused me so that the Astor-Chanlers, who lived there, made complaint of our presence.

“Mrs. Allen got my father to stop my allowance, and refused to give me my grandmother’s silver watch which had been left to me. I never liked my father’s third wife. She was deceitful and—and women have many reasons, you know, for not liking other women.

“When I was obligated to leave Jack Wilmerding I went to my aunt. She advised me to return and try to live with him again, for three months, anyhow. I did return, but I just couldn’t live with him; it was too horrible.

Mrs. “Jack” briefly sketched her career after leaving her husband.

“I lived at the Gerlach for a while,” she said, “and my relatives, who will not aid me now, were glad enough to visit me and take luncheon then.”

“It was my habits and the worry of it all which destroyed my health,” continued the beauty in a penitent tone.

“I will tell the truth—all of it, bad as it is.”

“Three years ago I began to drink to excess. My husband had started me in the habit and my troubles, monetary as well as domestic, drove me to continue it. I drank terribly, terribly, and I smoked terribly too. Sometimes I drank a quart of whisky a day. I took cocktails and absinthe and liquors, too, all mixed up. I smoked constantly—forty cigarets a day—and I ate nothing. I simply lived on stimulants and excitement.

“My physical health became shattered and my mind was affected. I was destitute almost.

“I heard that my father was ill in Europe. I wrote and told him that I was alone and would come to him if that woman were not with him. He replied saying I would like Mrs. Allen when I came to know her and to come on and join them.

“I had to have some money and I went to Lawyer Levy. I told Mr. Levy that I would sell my interest in some trust funds in the Washington Trust company and he told me it would be wicked to do so. Finally I went to the Forgolstons and borrowed some money.

“The night before I sailed for Europe I went to get some more. I got $500 in cash and some bonds, and I think I sold my interest in $15,000 of the trust funds left to my father by my grandmother for himself and his family.

“I went to Cannes and to Capri, where my father was. I had about $1,000, and was blackmailed out of part of it by a woman whom I took with me. She proved unworthy. It was at Monte Carlo that I gave her the money. My father became ill after my arrival. I gave Mr. Allen some of my money. While in Capri I sat up night after night for a month drinking and smoking with my father. He gave me absinthe and French brandy. I had no sleep; I did not eat. I had to nurse him, and frequently had to go out at night with a lantern to bring the doctors. These doctors were named Cerio, father and son. It was the elder who afterward brought me back to America.

“Dr. Cerio was responsible for my breaking down—he and Mrs. Allen. If they had taken care of me and put me under the care of a nurse I would have got better. I became ill—delirious. I did not know what I was doing. The young doctor, Cerio, made love to me violently and frightened me. It was a horrible thing altogether.

“Finally, I said I would return to the States. I took passage on the Ems. Dr. Cerio, the elder, insisted on accompanying me. I did not want him, and said so, but he came anyhow, and told everybody in the ship I was insane.

“You, Mr. Gleason, and Franklyn Allen, my uncle, and his wife met me at the pier. I know I was wild then. I told Mrs. Allen that my father was dead and other foolish things.

“If I had been sent to an asylum then or taken to the home of my relatives with a nurse I would soon have been well, said Mrs. “Jack” sorrowfully.

“I know I was ill and irresponsible, but I think that I am all right now and I want to get out,” said Mrs. “Jack” plaintively.

“At the asylum I behaved foolishly at first. The nurse told me if I did not stop she would put me in hall No. 7, where the sick patients are.

“They did it, too,” said Mrs. “Jack,” vindictively. “It was an awful place. Pardon the expression, but it absolutely stunk. I was wild with fear and indignation, and I deliberately tore up my clothes and screamed and carried on. I did it to make them take me back to my private room. For several weeks afterward I had no clothes to speak of.”

“Why,” and Mrs. “Jack” leaned over confidentially, “I had to go to the dances in the one old black dress I’d crossed the ocean in.”

After a long examination touching on her remembrance of events before and after her marriage, Lawyer Gleason asked: “Do you remember when you left for Europe?”

“Oct. 6, last year,” she promptly replied. “The night before I made Lawyer Levy go to the Forgolstons with me to get some money. I wanted to settle my debts.”

“How much did you get and what property did you sell?”

“Well, I gave you some money, I gave Mr. Wilmerding $500, and I kept the rest.”

Mrs. “Jack” could not clearly state just what transactions she had had with Lawyer De Lamon and Etta Forgolston, but she was positive that for signing over what she believed to be a $35,000 interest in trust funds held in her father’s name she only got $500 cash and “some papers.” “I burnt a lot of them afterward, when I was delirious,” she said.

“Did you not know that you signed over about $50,000 worth of property in the Washington Trust and the Farmers’ Loan and Trust companies?”

“O, I didn’t know. Was there so much as that? I thought it was only $35,000. I’m glad there is some left.”

Mrs. “Jack” was impatient as to details of her transactions at Forgolston’s.

Then Mrs. “Jack” said calmly, when pushed for the exact details of her business transactions. “Perhaps I was non compos mentis.”

Lawyer Gleason put a lot of incoherent letters in evidence, asking Mrs. “Jack” if she had written them.

“I suppose I did,” she said, pleasantly. “I wrote all sorts of ridiculous epistles while I was delirious.”

“You admit you were insane in Capri.”

“Well, I was in a horrible state.” A few minutes later, resenting Lawyer Gleason’s close inquiries, Mrs. “Jack” laughed mischievously, and said:

“O, now, Mr. Gleason, you remember how we used to drink whisky and smoke cigarets together when I came to see you?”

“I want to prove my sanity,” she continued. “I know when I went to Bloomington that my mind was in bad shape, but I’d been under an awful strain for a long time. Now my physical health is excellent and I believe I’m sane.”

Mr. Samuel B. Lyon, medical superintendent of Bloomingdale, was called to the stand to tell what he knew of the once petted beauty’s vagaries.

“When she came to us she was in a bad state,” he said. “She had wild delusions. She expressed them in letters. She wrote one to the President of the United States. She wrote others to Dr. Cerio, averring that he was her father. She declared she was being poisoned at the insistence of her relatives. She had”—and the doctor grew emphatic—“delusions of filth. She saw dirt where there was no dirt.”

“O—O!” gasped Mrs. “Jack” from behind her fan.

“She is better,” said the doctor, and her delusions are now in abeyance. But if she were left to her own devices I fear she would go backward. She is not fit to manage her own affairs yet.”

“Mr. Levy—Dr. Lyon, do you mean to say that it would be dangerous to let Mrs. Wilmerding go out of this court and about the streets of White Plains free this afternoon?”

“Not dangerous,” replied the doctor, “but I’m quite sure she would be intoxicated and smoking cigarets before she got to the depot.”

“O—! O rats!” exclaimed Mrs. “Jack.” Then quickly, “I really beg your pardon.”

The commissioner after a brief consultation closed the case.

“We will call on Mrs. Wilmering at the asylum a week from today,” he said. “Meantime we will go over the evidence and formulate our decision.”

Mrs. “Jack” arose, bowed and smiled everybody present, and, walking with a buoyant tread, strolled out to the big carriage which waited to take her back to Bloomingdale.