Think “Kept Women of the Gilded Age” and you will probably come up with the unfortunate Evelyn Nesbit Well, everyone loves a murder story, don’t they?
Emilie Grigsby – name probably doesn’t ring a bell. Pity, really. Of the two lives, her’s is quite as scandalous and yet has a far happier ending.
Unlike Ms Nesbit, she came from something. Her great grandfather was James Fisher Robinson (Governor of Kentucky 1862-1863), her father Lewis Braxton Grigsby a colonel in the Union Army. By the end of the war, he had station but no money and was not very good at getting it. He died after his wife Susan gave birth to a son and daughter, leaving her to get by as best she could.
Staying home, proud but poor, was one solution. It wasn’t Susan’s. She was more of a Scarlett O’Hara type.
Susan, a woman of some spirit and a taste for the fast life, instead parked the children in good schools (Emilie with Catholic nuns), then crossed the river into Cincinnati and set up a bordello.
The enterprise seems to have prospered, though without Emelie’s being aware. (Her brother claims that he knew all about it, even bragged that he got special rates.) She was well groomed for a life of refinement, as well as devotion to the church. When she left there, it was off to New York City (presumably Cincinnati was off the cards) to join her brother who had through subsequent business dealings became acquainted with Charles T. Yerkes.
This unsentimental man was absolutely bowled over. A combination of Emilie’s stunning good looks (she was still in her teens) and her civilized behavior (Yerkes’ then wife was a belter of very low taste indeed). He was soon visiting often and laying on extravagant gifts. By 1898, he had built her a house on 660 Park Avenue, around the corner and three blocks from his own. (This, by the way, from a man who is said to have kept a team of lawyers on full time retainer to rid him of his many discarded mistresses.)
The papers had a good deal of fun with all of this. She was referred to as his ward, Victorian wink-wink nudge-nudge for mistress, and her claims that the money she was spending was all hers and the result of shrewd investments were written down without comment. She even invited the press into the so-called “Mystery House” and showed them the private fourth floor with its crucifix and Prie Dieu that kept her in mind of higher matters.
She also felt the freedom to move about as she liked. This included European trips, one to London to be near Yerkes while he considered investing in the London Underground, another to Rome where she with her newly converted visited the pope. Newspapers reported in 1901 that she was to marry Spanish American War hero Richmond Pearson Hobson, so called Father of Prohibition, but nothing came of it. She wrote a novel (I: In Which a Woman Tells the Truth About Herself), which sold well enough to give her a claim to an occupation. She collected art and furniture and books and bindings, including, in 1903, a Shakespeare first folio. She at least made the effort to go out into society, though with less than absolute success. Her charm of manner and familiarity with old Kentucky horse flesh gave her brief entre to Saratoga, until, inevitably, someone from Her Past happened by and spilled the beans about that establishment in Cincinnati.
She had to get used to this sort of thing. On cruising back from England on a Cunarder, she fell in with Mrs Stuyvesant Fish and became quite friendly with the older woman who decided that this nice young lady should spend the summer chez Fish at Newport. The invite lasted until someone at the New York pier gave Mrs. Fish the full story.
Emilie didn’t let on much if these personal humiliations bothered her. She was in the papers often enough, pointed out at the opera in large part on account of her stunning looks. There are a few portraits of her done by Yerke’s favorite painter Jan Van Beers, two at least in which she is half naked. Red-blond hair, violet eyes, sweet temper- what’s not to like? Indeed, she is said to be Paul Wayland Bartlett‘s the model for the statue of Religion on the Attic Portico facade of the New York Public Library. (Sadly, I have not been able to track down details on this story.)
Yerkes continued to lavish Emilie with jewels and art and would have married her had his wife not been adamant. When he died in 1906, the estate proved to be weighed down with debts so heavy that his wife, after years of litigation and probate, was left with $163,363. She died in 1911 from shock as anything else.
Emilie made out much better. She held absolute title to her house, jewels, and artwork (including a Pissarro, Monet, Corot). She was in London for the Coronation and, oddly, cabled back notices suggesting an intimacy with the Royal Family that was perhaps not strictly accurate. She had in fact gotten no closer than the children’s French tutor. Buckingham Palace went so far as to issue a statement that while she might have been in the public galleries, there was no record of a Miss Grigsby in any official list.
Nevertheless, she had gotten the Anglophile bug. Between that and utter rebuff from the Right People in New York, or perhaps just desirous of someone interesting to talk to, Emilie announced that she was selling up and leaving America for good. The house and property brought a good sum ($US 193,067 – NB she had nearly a million in unsold jewels) and she was off to England where, if Buckingham Palace was not open, the culturati were happy to have her, attracted by her conversation, her looks, her taste in couture, her wealth, and no doubt by her delicious past. The 80 Brook Street house in Mayfair saw the likes of W. B. Yeats, August Rodin, George Meredith, and Sir Shane Leslie (cousin to Winston Churchill). Others were not so beguiled. London papers in 1904 started a rumor of an engagement to Henry James, mortifying to that confirmed bachelor who denied to his brother even having been aware of her “apparently extremely silly existence”.
During the first war, the country cottage (Old Meadows) in Surrey was a respite for weary soldiers like Field Marshals Sir John French and Lord Kitchener, and most especially General Sir John Cowans. (Not that she didn’t go for younger men as well – Leslie alleges that Rupert Brooke spent his last night in England as her guest, though he is light on detail.) Between the wars she traveled to India where she beguiled the Rajah of Jaipur. A marriage was offered, but politely declined, and she came away with the souvenir of a diamond studded cigarette case. Much of the second war she spent in America, though not by choice – she was caught off guard when the travel bans went up, and had to wait some years before returning to her adopted home.
The money and the charm seem to have lasted, and so too her sense of style. Various of her coutour dresses (and more) can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Carl Van Vechten shot this picture of her in the 1950’s.
She died in a London nursing home in 1964; Evelyn Nesbit, her contemporary in scandal, outlived her by three years, regrettably in nowhere near such nice circumstances.
One makes ones way through life as best one can, and as far as can be determined, she did no one any particular harm and seems to have brought a good deal of pleasure to many, which, London Underground and the Chicago L notwithstanding, is a good deal more than can be said of first benefactor.
Her name is variously rendered as Emily Busby and even Emiline Busby. Busbey with an e may be an affectation, but if so, it’s one that was formalized in her last will and testament. And, of course, her obituary in the Times.
Back in the day, the Times and other newspapers couldn’t get enough of her, and she turns up in various places in various memoirs of the times e.g. Carl Van Vechten’s, The Splendid Drunken Twenties: Selections from the Daybooks, 1922 – 30, Shane Leslie’s Long Shadows. The most sustained potted biography currently is in Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes by John French. Johnathon Walker Roberts is soon to publish an account of her World War One years, The Blue Beast: Power and Passion in the Great War