Héloïse Durant Rose
Sometimes you have to fight for what’s yours even when you know you can’t win
In 2017, a box in an attic was opened. Inside there was a scrapbook that once belonged to Héloïse Durant Rose. This discovery shed some light on the life of a woman who has always been a mere footnote in the annals of her family’s history.
Héloïse, or Ella, is only known for a particularly nasty bought of sibling rivalry that developed after the death of her father, and though her life was far more dynamic than is often recognized, a note about her father is a reasonable place to start her story. Dr. Thomas C. Durant was one of the biggest personalities in the railroad business. He was also one of the craftiest. His career had a few false starts. First he practiced medicine, then was a grain exporter, but he finally found his true calling in the railroad right before the outbreak of war. This fortuitous timing allowed him to make a fortune smuggling cotton from the Confederacy before forming the Union Pacific and beginning work on the first Transcontinental Railroad.
Durant is often described along the lines of “the most colorful and least liked” of all the men involved in the building of the railroad. He was a verbose, overconfident, and ruthless conniver who both provided the steam to connect the nation and orchestrated the biggest financial scandal of the century. It stands to reason that his daughter, Ella, would be forged from the same fire that he employed to connect a divided nation. However, it appears as though Ella spent very little time with her father. After all, leading the greatest engineering endeavor in the nation’s history and juggling dozens of land and stock schemes left little time for family bonding. Yet, the Civil War had not changed the country so much that the husband and father did not control his home and its inhabitants absolutely.
Ella enjoyed the life of a young, rich socialite, but even a man as wealthy as Durant was not immune to the pitfalls of the market. In 1873, a financial panic swept across the country - much of it caused by railroad speculation. Ella and her family, then living in London, were abruptly called home to Durant’s modest wilderness outpost in North Creek, New York. It was a startling change for Ella, who quickly discovered that there was little to do in the quiet of the wilderness other than reflect and write.
Information about Ella’s early life is sparse. She was schooled in private institutions in the U.S. and Europe and was considered a bright student. She was fluent in French, German, Italian, and Arabic. At age 20 she was living the lavish life of an American heiress in London, attending parties and cultivating friendships with some of the greatest literary minds of the era. Letters indicate that Ella’s mind was recognized as readily as her beauty; however, her aspirations were interrupted in 1875 by her father’s newest financial trouble.
Certainly, it would’ve been a culture shock to go from London to the wilderness of New York state. Whatever Ella’s feelings on the matter were, they are not known to us now. The only account of her time there comes from an article she wrote for the New York Times, titled “Old Days in the Adirondacks.” The memories recalled are, perhaps, tinted with that rosy hue that only time can produce. Overall, Ellla’s time at the camp seemed to pass uneventfully. She shot a bear that was stealing food, she made roofing tiles when they were needed, and she jovially remembers once stealing a boat from a a resident guide and trapper known as “snake eye.” Even though the man thew a tornado of a tantrum when he caught her, she says that after apologizing to Snake Eye he, “was not only modified by my words, but ever after we were fast friends.”
Ella’s days passed with little excitement. The family mostly enjoyed quiet and only occasionally had to deal with one of the unforeseen challenges that come from forest life. Whether she was content or frustrated with her life there, we do not know. Then, in 1881, she abruptly left the camp.
In her mid-20s, Ella spent some time asserting her independence. She spent years separated from her family, living with a variety of friends in New York instead. The mighty Thomas Durant might’ve been all to mastermind the railroad, but he was no match for his daughter’s spirit.
The repercussions of her absence are unknown, but with Durant’s personality being what it was, we can assume that they were not insignificant. Nevertheless, Ella persevered. She was trained in nursing and spent years administrating health services to the poor at a convent. Around this time she also began to, once again, pursue her literary endeavors. Her first published work in 1884 was a collection of poems titled “Pine Needles, or Sonnets and Songs.” This was followed by Dante: A Dramatic Poem in 1892, which would be translated into an Italian stage play. It is widely believed that this was the first American work to be brought to the Italian stage.
Once she was on a roll, she couldn’t be stopped. She wrote dozens of plays, short stories, and she often contributed articles to the New York Times. Apparently trying to branch out, Ella also acted in one of her own plays, a French production called, “Un Héros de la Vendée.”
Ella’s catalogue of personal acquaintances also flourished during this time in New York and London. Her circle of friends included Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Anne Ritchie Thackeray. However, her success did not come quick enough for her father to see. Just after publishing her first book she was called back to the family home. Before the winter of 1885, Thomas Durant was dead.
If the relationship between Ella and her father was a rocky one, it doesn’t mean that she was immune to the grief of losing a parent. In fact, if her own publicans are any reflection of her nature then she was a person easily seduced by the emotional and the dramatic. Her own brother wrote once to accuse her of deriving too much joy from playing a victim. Whether this particular accusation was true is unclear, but it is obvious from her writing that she had a habit of falling easily in love. One summertime friend, Poultney Bigelow, wrote lovingly o her beauty and spirited nature, remembering his time at the Durant camp in 1878 as a fairy tale played out at Ella’s side “in a canoe or forest path.”
Ella loved deeply, but she only married twice. Her first husband was Arthur Frethey who was a medical student when they met in London. They were married in 1891. He died only six months later, leaving Ella with his medical bills. In 1895, she married again, this time to a Danish man named Charles Heinrich Marcus Rose. The couple had one son, Timbrell Durant Rose, and the couple remained together until Charles’s death in 1937.
Perhaps Ella’s romantic nature made her too trusting. The death of her father left Ella with an inheritance that could keep her comfortable, but that was substantially less than expected. In an attempt to expand her fortune, Ella gave most of the money to a Parisian Count to invest for her. That money was soon lost. A letter to Ella indicates the possible relationship that Ella had with the Count:
“Your mother exceedingly regrets you accepted a jeweled cross from Count Seguin de La Salle … she does wish you had refused it … he would have far greater respect for you if you had done so.”
Throughout the 188s, Ella attempted to maintain the London lifestyle she was accustomed to while also pursuing her career as an author. This was a difficult feat on the $200 monthly allowance allotted to her by William. Nevertheless, her upbringing as an heiress had taught her the importance of community engagement and philanthropy. Ella was often featured in the local papers for being involved with charitable groups. She also spearheaded fundraising efforts for charitable organizations like the First New York Ambulance Red Cross Equipment Society. However, her greatest interest was in education - particularly equal opportunity education for women. In 1883, Ella added her name to the “Memorial to the Columbia College Board of Trustees,” a petition to allow female students to attend lectures and take exams at Columbia College. Her signature was accompanied by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Chauncey Depew, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, Ella’s writing, friendships, philanthropic efforts, and activism are barely remembered. A larger event was destined to engulf her life and her legacy.
Thomas Durant, the master of all schemers, had a plan in mind when he called his family home in 1873. His son, William West Durant, was destined to help him regain his wealth. While working to build the Transcontinental Railroad, Durant began another project. From the rains of the Sachets Harbor and Saratoga Railroad Company Durant formed the Adirondack Company. With the 500,000 acres he acquired in that reorganization Durant planned to construct another railroad to connect the Adirondacks to Canada. However, the endeavor soon stalled due to financial difficulties. But Durant wasn’t out of ideas yet. He only needed his son to help him realize his new ambitions.
William Durant was traveling in Egypt when he received word from his father. Soon he was back in North Creek, New York, listening to his father’s plans to develop the area around Raquette Lake. The idea was to build an compound to properly impress potential railroad investors, but the pair soon saw the opportunity to gain more money and influence by capitalizing on the burgeoning tourism industry that was sparked by the publication of WHH Murray’s “Adventures in the Wilderness.” Not only did William develop the camp architectural style that became typical for the area, he also personally saw to it that the region ha the resources to grow by opening a stag coach line, building steamboats, a telegraph office, and founding a church. At the time of his father’s death in 1885, it appeared that William had fulfilled all of his father’s dreams.
Thomas Durant died intestate, but Ella quickly signed over power of attorney to her brother. Nearly as quickly, she realized that doing so was a mistake. Four months after the funeral, Ella arrived back in London and hired an attorney to contest William’s power, but for whatever reason she never followed through with the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, William’s fortunes began to deteriorate. Where his father saw the possession of land as an incomparable source of wealth and power, William could only measure wealth by the amount of cash in his pocket. As soon as he was granted control of the family finances, William began selling off land and timber, as well as the Adirondack Company, for capital. This money he invested in the construction of lavish new camps that were then sold to men like J.P. Morgan, Collis Huntington, and Alfred Vanderbilt. At the same time, William was engaging in a lifestyle that was considered profligate even by his wealthy peers. William even purchased an ocean-going yacht for $200,000. Unfortunately for William, his habits were unsustainable. His constructions sapped funds from his accounts and all of his camps sold for little or no profit, his wife sued for divorce, and then Ella reentered his life.
After the sale of the Adirondack Company William told Ella that $25,000 accounted for her share - she was promised one-third of the proceeds - and it was all she would ever receive. However, upon hearing about William’s spending habits, Ella realized that she had been singled. As it turned out, $25,000 didn’t even account for 5% of the profit. Ella was furious, William was stubborn, and the legal battle that followed would last for another 40 years.
To defend himself, William used every slander he could against Ella, mocking her literary accomplishments, recalling her poor investment choices, and finally revealing the real reason she left North Creek so abruptly in 1881. For the reading pleasure of the entire country he testified that Ella had been and unmanageable girl who hosted male and female friends at the family camp without a chaperone. This malfeasance is what sparked Thomas Durant’s wrath and caused her banishment from the family. The following day, the newspapers were heavy with salacious stories of Ella’s exploits.
Despite the attacks on her character, the court riled in Ella’s favor, awarding her $753,931. Ella wasn’t finished there, though. At the time of Ella’s lawsuit, William was also dealing with separate lawsuits from his wife who was seeking a divorce. He could not curb his expensive tastes and by the time Ella won her case against him, most of the money was gone. Unimpressed, Ella continued her pursuit of what was owed to her, even having William arrested once. In 1904, William finally declared bankruptcy. In response, Ella sued him again. Then again in 1916, and once more in 1926 for good measure.
By the time William was lying on his death bed in 1934, he finally admitted that perhaps he lacked his father’s financial skills.
In the end, William Durant was remembered with esteem as “the original promoter of the Adirondacks as a place of recreation for the moneyed classes.” Héloïse was not remembered much at all. Her literature never gained a notable following and there is no record of the time she spent with luminaries in London or elsewhere. We have no first-hand account of anything that she did or thought after leaving her father’s home in 1881. Her obituary notes that she was an author and mentions her involvement in clubs, but gives little detail aside from that. Any personal belongings that she had at the time of her death were passed along to her son. Ella’s son married the artist, Lillian Tiffany, but the couple never had children. It is possible that whatever mementoes or personal belongings Ella might have left are now lost.
The personal collections of her father and brother are housed in a numerous libraries, but outside of a handful of letters kept at Syracuse University, we have no way to know the inner thoughts of Héloïse Durant.
In 2017, a scrapbook was discovered that was dated 1854-1920. It was passed on from a distant relative, Howard Rose, to a family that kept it in their attic for over 30 years without knowing what it was. Inside there were love notes to Ella, certificates, a family tree, and sundry articles. The bulk of the content focused on the lawsuits. Even though the scrapbook supposedly belonged to Ella, it was found in a portfolio bearing the insignia of Lillian Tiffany Rose. This was not the the notebook of a woman who had spent her life writing and fighting to be heard. We can still hope that somewhere there is a yet undiscovered notebook that will shed some light on this prolific, yet elusive figure.
Women throughout history have struggled to be remembered. Typically, the women of wealth and power are more successful in gaining recognition, but even they can be pushed to the margins of history. There are hundreds, even thousands, of women like Heloïse Durant Rose who demonstrated bravery, tenacity, and creativity, but are nonetheless only remembered for the men that they interacted with, if they are remembered at all. Often their legacies will be lost forever, but sometimes with just a little digging we can find something that they left behind.
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