Archive for October, 2010

Gif and the Ghost Girl: Part 2

October 26, 2010

Well, back to Gifford Pinchot and his eerie relationship. After Laura Houghteling died in 1894, Gifford wore mourning for 2 years. He told his parents that Laura’s passing was “nothing more than a temporary separation”. He meticulously recorded his interaction with her in his diaries. Two months after her death, he “sat with Miss Houghteling” in the church at Biltmore”. She was with him at Grey Towers, on a train in Frankfurt Germany, shared meals with him, and often visited him at night. In January 1895, 11 months after her death, Laura “spoke to me, saying she wanted to be with me as much as I want to be with her”.

Gifford actually moved in to the Houghteling family home in North Carolina for a time. Laura’s mother also believed that Laura had not really died and the two of them would sit in Laura’s room and converse, trying to contact Laura amid her possessions.

Gifford used to linger outside the house in Washington DC where Laura died. In April, 1896 he apparently married her during a late night visit to this house, writing in his journal, “In God’s sight my Lady and I are husband and wife”. After this marriage, Gif no longer wore his all black mourning clothes.

Gifford believed Laura was with him often, though her appearance was erratic. He often consulted mediums, psychics and attended seances. Apparently some people warned him that his celebrity made it critical that he be very discreet about communing with the dead. His mother was unhappy with his “mystical wife”, and though he was handsome and popular and to all appearances an eligible bachelor, Gifford lived with his parents in Washington, content with his spiritual life with Laura. He continued to build the US Forest Service, and preach conservation.

After his friend Roosevelt left office, Pinchot got fired by President Taft in 1910. Gif mounted a campaign against the enemies of conservation, got involved in legal fights, lobbied to protect our forests, and through all his trials, Laura was with him. In fact, Gifford was actively pursuing an intense spiritual quest, trying to unite with Laura on some other plane. It is not clear how he thought this would happen.

Meanwhile, Gifford’s mother wanted to see the dynasty carry on, and she wanted to see it before her death. An engagement was announced between 49 year old Gifford and 33 year old Cornelia Bryce, a New York heiress who was a feminist and very politically active. The marriage was rushed, and took place 9 days before Gifford’s mother died in 1914. Gifford’s last diary entrance about Laura was written 14 days before his marriage. He kept all her letters and photos at Grey Towers.

Gifford and Cornelia were married for 32 years and had one son. Cornelia was very politically astute and helped Gif get elected to 2 terms as Governor of Pennsylvania. She was a suffragette, marched and picketed for factory workers, hosted plenty of political dinners at Grey Towers, and seemed an admirable helpmeet. She and Gifford had separate bedrooms at Grey Towers (as was the custom at the time), but apparently met up on the sleeping porch that connected the two rooms.

I have to wonder… Gifford Pinchot led almost 2 separate lives. He was born in 1865, lived a prosperous, elegant, purposeful life, and met Laura Houghteling when he was 27. Their relationship developed in the gilded age, the Edwardian period around the turn of the last century, when gender roles were still fairly proscribed. Gifford and Laura had two years to establish a very spiritual and intellectual relationship. It was intense enough that it nourished Gifford for 20 years.

Cornelia was a “modern”, savvy, earthier woman, one with her own political agenda. She was outspoken, energetic, and a very pragmatical person.

Both women contributed immensely to Gifford’s carreer, although Laura did it in absentia. And though Laura is not mentioned in the diaries after Gif’s marriage to Cornelia, Gifford still managed the kind of solo expeditions to the wilderness that fostered his “meetings” with Laura in earlier days. After Gifford’s death in 1946, his family donated his papers to the Library of Congress, but witheld Laura’s letters, and Gifford’s diary for 1893, the year Laura and Gif were courting. It is unknown if these papers still exist.

As an interesting side note, I tracked down Laura’s grave. I was very surprised to find it was in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, which coincidentally is right behind the Baby’s new digs. Next time we visit the Baby, I think I will go pay a call on Laura too.

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Gif and the Ghost Girl: Part 1

October 14, 2010

Our recent road trip was to Pennsylvania for a national meeting of Forest Service Heritage people. Well, Mr. GG had to go to the meeting. I tagged along, cause my good friend was going to be honored at the meeting, and I had always wanted to visit the venue: Grey Towers, home of Gifford Pinchot, the father of the U.S. Forest Service.


Grey Towers, outside Milton Pennsylvania

In the one of the most frightening instances of “stage fathers” I have come across, Gifford’s dad raised him to be a forester, with an imbedded sense of noblesse oblige to serve his country. Which is especially interesting, since Gifford’s grandfather expanded the family fortune by denuding lots of the forests in the east.

If you watched Ken Burn’s series on the National Parks, you are aware of all the politics that surrounded the creation of national lands. The same kind of situation existed for the Forest Service. Lots of drama, big money against the environmentalists, personal issues, muckraking, etc. Gifford Pinchot was a national player, a tall, wealthy, talented man with a mission, and a very public figure. He was good friends with Teddy Roosevelt, joining him in lots of outdoor adventures (which included skinny dipping in the Potomac with the French ambassador), and most importantly, convincing TR to establish the National Forest Service.

Anyway, it turns out Gifford had a big secret. A REALLY BIG SECRET. He maintained a relationship with the love of his life for twenty years. After she was dead. Yep, you read that right. Gif talked, consulted, read to, traveled with, and married Laura Houghteling. After her death from consumption in 1894.

Naturally, this was not generally known, and it wasn’t until 1999 that James G Bradley published an article on the affair in Pennsylvania History titled, “The Mystery of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling” (Pennsylvania History, Volume 66, Number 2, Spring 1999, pp 199-214).

In 1892, Gif met Laura, a Chicago socialite, while he was working on Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in North Carolina. Laura was there to get treated for her “consumption” or TB, the white disease so prevalent at the turn of the last century. They had met previously, but this time, they really connected, and found that they were soul mates. Aware of the terminal nature of Laura’s disease, they apparently discussed spiritual matters in great detail, and agreed on a number of life goals, including Gifford’s calling to a career in national forestry. They became engaged in late 1893, but Laura’s health deteriorated, and she died on February 7, 1894.


Laura Houghteling in the 1890s

Although Gifford traveled to Chicago for the funeral services, he did not appear to be grieving… and 38 days later, in a diary entry, he recorded that his lady was very near. This was the beginning of 20 years of of monastic faithfulness to his dead “wife” for Gif, 20 years where Laura was an intrinsic part of his life, 20 years where he journaled whether it was a “bright” or “cloudy” or “blind” day – his code words for how close Laura was to him, or whether her presence was there for him. This ongoing relationship nurtured Gifford through years of work, allowing him to accomplish the goals he and Laura had set out as his life’s work.

(More to follow. Check back for Part 2).

Keepin’ the Faith

October 7, 2010

I got religion! On a recent roadtrip Mr. GG and I happened to be driving through the Hudson River Valley in New York. We took a small detour to find a riverside park to walk in (Mr. GG is serious about his fitness regimen now. Walks every morning).
Anyway we drove by this church, and I realized I had found my spiritual kindred.

You see, sleeping is one of my most favorite things. I devote as much time as I can to it. To do it properly, especially at this time of year, I need The Company Store down comforters, and flannel sheets. But I need a comforter all year round, even in summer. I like to be covered up when I sleep. Luckily, they make light weight ones, so I can wallow in softness any time of year.

And it is not just me. The cats are very invested in our bedding. They prefer flannel sheets to all else, but also like quilts, down comforters, and any clothing Mr. GG has inadvertently left on the bed.

Here is Furbutt lounging on Mr. GG’s side of the bed. Leaving a thick felted layer of fur on the pillow. I will hear about this later, I am sure.

I think I will print out the sign above, frame it, and put it over our bed. Perhaps I should designate our bed (which Mr. GG brought back from an Amish Colony in the Midwest for our 20th anniversary), as the “Flannel Chapel” or the “Chapel of High Thread Count”. While I am not exactly a new convert, since it is fall, and the nights are longer and chillier, I do expect to spend a good bit of time at my devotions.