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The Gilded Age in Florida: A Few Words about the Flaglers and their Food

Ponce de Leon Hotel, St. Augustine (Now Flagler College) (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

No, here I’m not celebrating Julian Fellowes’s TV series, “The Gilded Age.” I’ll confess something right off the bat: I watched only a few episodes.

Why?

The story of that tumultuous time is actually more interesting than fiction. First of all, Mark Twain coined the phrase, “The Gilded Age,” in a satirical novel meant to excoriate the men who made fortunes, especially the big four:

The Gilded Age in American history, running from approximately 1870 to 1900, has always fascinated me. As a matter of fact, the whole of the nineteenth century intrigues me, because so many far-reaching events and stupendous inventions occurred between 1800 and 1900.

Telegraph

Railroads

Germ theory of disease

Canning of food

Typewriter

Sewing machine

Aspirin

Telephone

Camera

Baking powder

Coca Cola

Jello

Elevator

Escalator

Automobile

Etc., etc.

But one man, not among the big four, but rich beyond imagining, managed to turn Florida – with its steaming swamps, alligators, and white-sand beaches – into a vision of Paradise for countless wealthy people eager to explore the exotic state to the south.

Henry M. Flagler

Oil magnate Henry Flagler took his earnings from Standard Oil, which he founded with John D. Rockefeller, and channeled that vast sum – $10-$20 million at the end of the nineteenth century – into Florida hotels and railroads. Essentially one of the so-called “robber barons,” Flagler did much to open up the vastness of Florida to more settlers, who still come in droves to one of the most unique places on earth.

One of the hotels that Flagler built, the Hotel Ponce de Leon of 1888 still stands in St. Augustine, although it is now Flagler College and not a hotel. Another magnificent original building of Flagler’s is Whitehall, in Palm Beach.

Flagler, like many wealthy men, wielded so much clout that he asked the Florida state legislature at the time to change a law so he could divorce his second wife, conveniently locked up in an insane asylum. Yes, like the other Henry, the VIII, he wanted out so he could marry his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, on August 24, 1901. The law changed, making it possible to cite insanity as a factor in divorce. Their age difference also caused many tongues to wag. “Imagine that, she’s 34 and he’s what, 72!”

The average person at the time could only dream of living the luxurious existence of Henry and Mary Lily.

The State Dining Room in Warwick Castle, England, inspired the breakfast room at Whitehall.

Take a tour of Whitehall HERE. The museum publishes a magazine twice a year, Inside Whitehall.

 

Breakfast Room at Whitehall

Mary Lily Kenan Flagler

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Flagler saga centers not on their age difference, but on Mary Lily’s death. After Flagler died in 1913, Mary Lily resumed an illicit relationship she’d carried on with Robert Worth Bingham, whom she married after Flagler’s death from a fall, the same year Bingham’s wife committed suicide. Then she passed on at age 50 in very peculiar circumstances. Rumor had it, and still does, that her second husband a dermatologist conspired to kill her with a morphine overdose. Motive? Yes. She’d written Robert Worth Bingham out of her will, although he agreed to that, according to sources. He claimed she’d written a secret codicil granting him $5 million dollars. I don’t blame her, for he’d infected her with syphilis. Read more of the whole sordid tale HERE and HERE.

Flagler built Whitehall as a gift for Mary Lily. Situated on Brelsford Point, east of Lake Worth.

What a gift it was!

The couple vacationed at Whitehall in Palm Beach during the winter months, their presence driving the rise of tourism to the town. A veritable palace, Whitehall consisted of seventy-five rooms totaling 100,000 square feet. And marble staircases, one causing Flagler’s death at 83, when he toppled to the bottom of one such.

Nearby stood two other edifices constructed by Flagler, the Royal Poinciana Hotel and The Breakers. A fire broke out at The Breakers in 1925, but upon rebuilding it, the Royal Poinciana Hotel started a downhill slide until its demolition in 1960.  Victorian-era hotels lost favor with most tourists, who headed to the more-modern hotel, The Breakers, still an elegant, rousing business.

As for food, the Flaglers hired chefs and cooks and other servants to prepare their food. At the moment, I don’t have any information about them, but if I were to venture a guess, many of the dishes the Flaglers served at their sumptuous dinner parties came from cookbooks such as Charles Ranhofer’s 1894 door-stopper-sized The Epicurean. With its carved mantelpiece festooned with crabs, fruit, and shells, the dining room represents the French renaissance style popular in Europe.

Dining Room at Whitehall

And most intriguing are the stories of ghosts at Whitehall. Some believe the Flaglers still walk at night. One cleaning lady claims something or someone slapped her buttocks.

Who knows?

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