John William Tuohy lives in Washington DC

The Ansonia Hotel and the life of W.E.D. Stokes.

Crazy rich.

The Ansonia Hotel and the life of W.E.D. Stokes.

John William Tuohy

William Earle Dodge Stokes, he preferred W.E.D., was born in 1852 into a family of enormous wealth and power. His grandfather, Thomas Stokes, who came wealthy London merchants in a family founded by a Norman who came to England with William the Conqueror. He settled in New York in 1796 and founded a series of businesses that made him even richer. Aside from his merchants fortune he was one of the founders of Phelps, Dodge & Co. His son, James Stokes, made even more money as a financier and philanthropist. W.E.D. Stokes was also the grandson of the fabulously wealthy industrialist Anson Green Phelps, the founder of what would become Ansonia. 

W. E. D. Stokes (Above in about 1890) was graduated from Yale in 1874 and joined his father business and eventually inherited his share of his father’s estate, valued at $11,000,000, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a million to a million and a half dollars.  

In his life, he made and lost a fortune. He had public arguments with his tenants and a fist fight with his maid’s drunken brother. He owned a house in Reno but was only there once and that was only because as the owner of the local railroad he was required to have a residence in the state. His business career was peppered with lawsuits, failed marriages and nasty affairs. He was an almost full time philanderer, occasional wife beater and the darling of the New York press because he was guaranteed fodder for a juicy headline.

W.E.D. Stokes (left) and his cousin William Earle Dodge Stokes

He made legions of enemies, most for no logic reason nor did he care how powerful or rich his enemies were. Between 1889 and1890 Stokes served as secretary on a committee formed to secure the 1893 World's Fair for New York City. The Committee chairman was former mayor Abram Hewitt whom Stokes undermined and back ended whenever the opportunity present itself. Soon Hewitt learned to despise Stokes and eventually managed to remove Stokes off of the committee. The World's Fair went to Chicago.

Stokes more or less left the family business in the early 1880's, took his fortune of about one million dollars and began developing real estate on the Upper West Side. From 1885 through 1890 he built several dozen row houses on the West Side, a few of them still stand today including the now-decrepit townhouses at 231 and 233 West 74th that were part of a group of 17 row houses Stokes built. But he had far bigger ideas than just land speculation and home building. Stokes planned to build the tallest building in Manhattan, which the Ansonia was for a short while.  He’d quietly began piecing together 22 parcels of land on the site of the old New York Orphan Asylum, at 73rd Street and the Boulevard.

Although the architect of record for Stokes new mega building was a Frenchman named Paul E.M. Duboy, who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts but it was Stokes who ran the show and listed himself as "architect-in-chief" for the project.

Duboy rendered one set of original drawings before Stokes paid him $5,000 and shipped him back to France, where he had a nervous breakdown although Stokes maintained that Duboy was out of his mind when he hired him.

Erected between 1899 and 1904, at Broadway and Seventy-Third Street on the upper West Side at a final cost of $3 million, the eighteen-story steel-frame structure was the first air-conditioned hotel in New York and the largest (It had 1400 rooms and 350 suites) residential hotel of its day.

He would call it the Ansonia, a latinized version of his grandfather’s name as well as the name of the Connecticut city he had built (and more or less still owned) that was then one of the most important and successful industrial towns in the world. 

And what a grand place it was. Apartments came standard with high ceilings, elegant moldings, bay windows, multiple bedrooms, parlors, libraries, double-width mahogany doors and formal dining rooms that were either round or oval.  
Each suite’s lush inventory of towels, napkins, table linen, soap, and stationery was refreshed three times a day. Full suites were equipped with electric stoves, hot and cold water and freezers and thick walls, installed to protect against fire, a feature that made the Ansonia apartments one of the most soundproof in the city. 

Pneumatic tubing snaked through the walls and delivered messages in capsules between the staff and tenants.

 There was a cooling system - the first one in New York- that kept the building at 70 degrees even on the hotter days.   
Above from 1908

Every apartment offered views north and south along what would become Broadway. There were a few small units that offered one bedroom, a parlor and bath but no kitchens. But that wasn’t a problem since the Ansonia had a central kitchen as well as serving kitchens on every floor manned by professional chefs. 

Common use rooms included tearooms, restaurants, a grand ballroom, a bank, a barbershop, Turkish baths and a lobby fountain with live seals. 

The Ansonia had its own curator, Joseph Gill-Martin, who collected 600 paintings for the hotel to display. Stokes started his own corporation to manufacture the building’s magnificent elevators.

 Durable terra-cotta helped fireproof the building because Stokes loathed insurance companies and planned to do without them. 

The buildings ballrooms and the dining rooms could seat and feed accommodate 1,300 guests. For a while it had the world’s largest indoor pool in its basement. 

The interior corridors, which may be the widest in the city were probably meant for cows since the property also had a cattle elevator, which enabled Stokes dairy cows to be stabled on the roof.

Every day, a bellhop delivered free fresh eggs to all the tenants, and any surplus was sold to the public in the basement arcade. It was part of Stokes a vision for a self-sufficient building. He believed in it so much he built a farm/zoo on the roof. “The farm on the roof,” Weddie Stokes wrote years later, “included about 500 chicken, many ducks, about six goats and a small bear.” 

Stokes explained the animals on the roof by saying “Last summer my boy and I were motoring on Long Island. We stopped at a farmhouse and my son made the acquaintance of this baby pig. The pig’s mother had died and the boy wanted him for a pet. We brought him to town in the motor, and fed him for weeks on milk from a bottle. Then from the same farmer we bought these wild geese to relieve the pig from boredom. Everything was quite sanitary, and the boy had great fun playing with his pets. It merely shows how a most innocent incident can be misconstrued, but I laughed heartily over a big city department pursuing a boy’s pet pig.”

Years later during an ugly divorce battle, Stokes wife claimed that he “maintained a poultry farm in his apartment at the Ansonia Hotel” which included 45 hens and several roosters and that their presence in the apartment constituted such a nuisance that she was frequently unable to eat there. Mrs. Stokes described the place as “absolutely filthy.”
The Board of Health agreed and planned to raid the Ansonia roof farm and confiscate the four pet geese and a pig, Nanki-Poo. Stokes got word of it and working with his butler, he hid the animals in the basement and convinced the inspector that the roof was animal-free. In 1907, the Department of Health shut down the farm in the sky and the animals were moved to new homes at the Central Park Animal Park.

Two years after it opened, the Ansonia, luxurious but not chic, was known as a gamblers hotel, especially after Albert J. Adams, “The Meanest Man in New York” who ran the New York policy rackets on the West Side from 1890 to around 1905.

Adams and Stokes met at Sing Sing prison when Stokes had gone there to visit an inmate friend of his, Sam Parks. Stokes had done business with Parks and thought Parks, one of the most detested men in New York, deserved to be pardoned, although only Stokes would know why.  

Sam Parks, was a New York labor leader who had already been convicted of extortion at time. He was prominent for years in Chicago labor circles, before coming to New York and setting up shot as a labor leader/extortionist. His game was simple. He called strikes and then took cash to call the strike off.  He was walking delegate, or business agent, of the local Housesmiths' and Bridgemen's Union for several years and it was under his leadership that the New York Irion workers went on strike. He was finally indicted for taking $500 from an employer on a promise to call off a strike. Parks died in the prison of natural causes in 1906
It was Parks who introduced Stokes to Adams. While he was at the prison Adams asked Stokes to use his considerable weight in the state to get him a pardon.

“He asked me to use what influence I had with the Governor to get him out. He said: “My being here is an awful disgrace to my family, and I can’t stand it much longer. If I don’t get out pretty soon I shall die.”

 Stokes said that Adams “promised to reform and on that strength I obtained the his advance release from prison” 

Al Adams was a Rhode Island Yankee and born poor, who came to New York when he was 27 years old and working as a brakeman on the New Haven Road. He eventually fell in with Zachariah Simmons, the man who owned the policy game in New York during the late 19th century. Supported by the Tweed Ring, Simmons pushed his way into policy rackets and pashed out old time bosses Reuben Parsons and John Frink. Simmons criminal empire ran three-fourths of the city's six or seven hundred policy operations and eventually held interests as far away as Milwaukee and Richmond. When Simmons retired as an extremely rich man, he sold the rackets to Adams who would continue to run Simmons' policy games until the reform movements during the 1910s.

Adams soon made a fortune was made out of nickels from the poor. On Dec. 14, 1901, a police raid at one of his casinos on West Thirty-Third Street resulted in piles of evidence against him. He was convicted and sent to Sing Sing.

When Adams was released he moved into the Ansonia with Stokes blessing. Before his conviction, police estimated that Adams was making more than $1 million a year and was allowed to stay at the Waldorf-Astoria until he was sentenced. Adams, who listed himself as a "segar dealer, wrote to the New York Times on October 8, 1905 that he had quit the policy racket forever 

Almost exactly one year later, on October 2, 1906, broke and out of power, Adams was found dead in Suite 1579 in the Ansonia from a self-inflicted shoot to the head at age 61. Adams had lost several million dollars by investing in a business venture with his eldest son.
Adams, a renowned skinflint, took his usual 6:45 wake up call. A valet named Earnest Miller who dressed and shaved Adams in the morning knocked on the suite door at about 7:00, when there was no answer he entered the three room suit with a pass key and found Adams lying across a chair, a  bullet hole that had gone into his left temple and excited trough his right temple. On the floor beside the chair lay a .44 caliber Colt’s revolver, new, and with one chamber empty.

From what could be pieced together at the scene. Sometime between 6:45 and 7:00, Adams opened the blinds to his apartment to let in the light. He had stood directly in front of a long mirror and had placed the muzzle of the revolver to his right temple. The bullet was found imbedded in the wall of a little private hall, having passed through the bedroom door. Adam’s fell to the left across the chair, and the revolver had dropped to the floor. His blood dripped into a cuspidor.

His jewelry, diamond cuff buttons, pins, and watch were where he had evidently left them the night before. There was $185 in cash in his wallet and some IOU’s. There were evidences that Adams had started to dress before killing himself.

Stokes was notified and rushed to the apartment with Dr. Julius Thornley, the house physician who declared the gambler dead.

“He told me,” Stokes said “that he had a great number of securities that he could not realize on, and that he had lent to his eldest son, who was with Sage & Co., $2,000,000. He said also that he had $40,000 out on IOU’s and that he had lent another $40,000 to a trust company and had lost fully $20,000 in Union Pacific besides. I think that the hounding he received at the hands of the newspapers had a great deal to do with his suicide. I know he felt it deeply.”

However his son, who had once threatened to shot his father, said Adams real estate holding were worth not less than $1,500,000, that he owned a gold mine in Mexico and that a conservative estimate of Adams wealth was about $7,000,000.

To almost everyone, Adams death looked like suicide. To the police however, it looked like suicide.

The Coroner’s office was run by Julius Harburger who despised Stokes which everyone knew but it shocked the entire city when his initial inquest into Adams death found that he had been murdered by Stokes. His theory was that Stokes had spent the night in Adams room and killed him late in the night for reasons unknown. The police disagreed. 

Another nationwide scandal inside the Ansonia followed in 1916. Edward R. West, Vice President of the C. D. Gregg Tea and Coffee Company of Chicago, had checked into the hotel with a woman he knew as Alice Williams. Her real name was Helen Godman, AKA "Buda" Godman, who was part of a Chicago extortion gang. Buda was the bait. She and West were in their suit when two of the gang members pushed their way inside and identified themselves as Federal agents and told West he was being arrested under the Mann Act. (Transporting a female across state lines for immoral purposes) 

West eventually paid the gang $15,000, an enormous sum at the time. However, he became suspicious and reported the incident to the police. The two fake cops were sent to prison. "Buda" Godman (Below) escaped and disappeared but she was eventually caught and charged for trying to fence Jewels stolen in a 1932 robbery. She was sentenced to four to 8 years in prison.

On September 21, 1919, a group of Chicago White Sox players gathered at the Ansonia and agreed to throw the World Series for about $10,000 a man. 

Hoodlum Arnold Rothstein, (below) who also lived at the Ansonia, planned the entire thing and never served a day in jail for it, unlike the players. 

(Rothstein's wife continued to live in the Ansonia after the gambler was shot to death) 

Beautiful people, the rich and the famous walked the halls of the Ansonia. It was an exciting place to be. Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld moved into a ninth-floor suite with his first wife, Follies star Anna Held. He also kept a gold-painted, life-size statue of the shapely Anna in the foyer and kept his girlfriend in an apartment on the tenth floor, another Follies showgirl named Lillian Lorraine. Later, when Anna became pregnant, Ziegfeld, worried about her performance schedule, demanded she undergo an abortion in the apartment.

World Heavyweight Boxing champion Jack Dempsey (In photo above, left, with Babe Ruth)
 used the Ansonia to train for the heavyweight-championship bout of 1919 against Jess Willard. The fight was held on July 4, 1919. Dempsey, 6'1", 187 pounds beat 6'6½" tall and 245 pound Willard, "Pottawatamie Giant", in fact he knocked Willard down seven times in the first round.

 When the fight was over Willard suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, several broken teeth, and a number of deep fractures to his facial bones. 

Willard later claimed to have been defeated by "gangsterism” meaning Dempsey cheated by using cement laden gloves. It wasn’t true and by all accounts it was a clean fight. Dempsey also lived at the Ansonia for a while. 

The Ansonia was the home of most of the New York Yankees players including Babe Ruth, who moved in during the 1919 season. The babe’s apartment was gathering spot for the others players and as a result there was almost always a card game happening there. The Babe “who thought of the entire hotel as an extension of his apartment” would wear his scarlet silk bathrobe down in the elevator to the basement barbershop for his morning shave. 

In 1930, the outrageous and colorful bank robber Willie Sutton was arrested while having breakfast at Childs Restaurant in the Ansonia two days before Thanksgiving.
It was said that the buildings temperature-control system, a great benefit for sinuses, brought singers to the hotel. True or not the Ansonia was the home to so many singers that it was dubbed “Palace for the Muses” including Arturo Toscanini. Composers included Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Gustav Mahler. Lauritz Melchoir, the foremost Wagnerian tenor in the world, lived in the building from 1926 to the early fifties and used his stuffed hunting trophies for archery practice in the hallways.

Over the decades the Ansonia was also home to writer Theodore Dreiser, the leader of the Bahá'í Faith (Below)

 Nobel prize winner in literature Isaac Bashevitz, composer Igor Stravinsky, tenor Enrico Caruso, Elmer Rice, Cornell Woolrich, Amy Chua, Jed Rubenfeld, James Fenton, cartoonist Walt Kelly, Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman,, Arnold Rothstein and  Sergei Rachmaninoff

On a winter’s day in 1894, Stokes was walking along Fifth Avenue when stopped to look at a framed photo in a photographer’s shop window. The girl in the photo was beautiful and Stokes, a man with a large and quirky appetite. He went inside the store and got the girls name. 

She was Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acosta, (Above) the spoiled, intelligent, high strung, moody and badly tempered but beautiful daughter a Spanish heiress, Micaela Hernández de Alba y de Alba, reputedly a relation of the Dukes of Alba and Ricardo de Acosta, a steamship-line executive and poet of Cuban descent. Stokes, a 42 year old man, also learned that she was only 15 years old.

His attraction to the teenage Rita didn’t surprise anyone in the known since Stokes was said to like his girls young, very young.  He had been accused of taking barely pubescent girls to his stud farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and tie them naked to a post in the barn, where they were forced to watch a stud horse mount a mare. 

In her life, Rita would be hailed as "the most picturesque woman in America." The New York Times wrote “her beauty has made her famous in the social world...She is a tall brunette, with a perfect figure, high color, and large black eyes.”  The portrait painter Paul Helleu called her “the most nearly perfectly beautiful woman in the world.” 

She would be photographed by Adolf de Meyer, Edward Steichen, and Gertrude Käsebier, sculpted in alabaster by Malvina Hoffman, and was painted by Giovanni Boldini and John Singer Sargent. 

The collector and creator of the Gardner museum in Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner, asked John Singer Sargent why Rita had never expressed herself artistically. "Why should she?" Sargent answered, "She herself is art."But she had created, in a small way. She was a novelist who penned a book about romances between the wealthy.  

She lived half the year in Paris whose personal wardrobe became the basis for the start of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When she traveled outside of New York she towed along a hairdresser, masseuse, chauffeur, secretary, maid and forty trunks by Louis Vuitton.

Within months of their meeting, Rita and Stokes married, on January 4, 1895 in the bride’s parents’ mansion at 48 West 47th Street. Archbishop Corrigan performed the ceremony in front of 1000 guests. “No wedding this season in New-York has attracted more interest among society people” reported The New York Times.

For her birthdays Stokes gave to her the Patchen Wilkes farm in Kentucky, at the time the world’s foremost breeding farm and the following year he gave her Beuzetta, probably the most famous horse of the day that set Stokes back $15,000. (Just under $500,000 today) 

Patchen Wilkes farm 

Rita’s sister was Mercedes De Acosta an author, a scriptwriter, and social critic and an unabashed lesbian, she made no attempts to hide her sexuality, amazing thing for the day. "I can” she told the press “get any woman away from any man."

 She was known for her often relationships with the cream of Hollywood and Broadway including actress Alla Nazimova, dancer Isadora Duncan, actress Eva Le Gallienne, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ona Munson, and Russian ballerina Tamara Platonovna Karsavina, Pola Negri, Eleonora Duse, Katherine Cornell, and Alice B. Toklas.

Raised as a strict Roman Catholic she had a lifelong obsession in eastern spirituality. She was rabidly anti-Franco in the 1930s, an advocate of women's rights and a vegetarian who refused to wear furs. 

She died in 1968 in dire poverty of a brain tumor at age 75 and is buried next to her sister at Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights, New York City.

Mercedes wrote in her autobiography that “when Rita finally decided to marry Will Stokes it was, I believe, because she felt his wealth could open doors. . . . But she paid a high price for any material gain.” In other words she married for money.

The couple moved into one of Stokes's new developments at 262 West 72nd Street (Today it is a 7 unit apartment building with Yoga center and bike repair business on the street level) but Stokes immediately began work on a new mansion at 4 East 54th Street designed by McKim, Mead and White, premier architects of the day. 
Stokes spent $140,000 buying the two 4-story brownstones and had McKim, Mead and White design a five story white marble mansion in the Italian Renaissance-style with a carved marble balcony stretched the length of the second story above a rusticated ground floor protected by a marble and cast iron fence.

The couple would never live there. Rita sued for divorce just as the house was near completion. Four months before the divorce began, Stokes sold it on December 14, 1899 for $325,000 to the fantastically wealthy Chicago lawyer and business mogul William H. Moore and his wife Ada. Moore was the founder of U.S. Steel, American Can Company, Diamond Match Company, National Biscuit Company (later renamed Nabisco) and several railroads and banks.
William Moore

In the summer of 1897, when Rita and Stokes were still speaking to one another, they rented Stone Villa, the Newport cottage of James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York and the Paris Herald, where Rita hosted an opening dinner party for 300. 

James Gordon Bennett

Demolished now, the estate was also leased by successive Imperial Russian Ambassadors as the summer legation and residence. In other words, it was no cottage.

 The summer after that, Rita rented a mansion in Bar Harbor and threw the party of the season for 200 guests who danced to a Hungarian Band from New York.

On January 5, 1896 Rita gave Stokes a son and heir, William Earl Dodge Stokes Jr, who would become known as simple “Weddie”. Again according to Rita’s sister Mercedes, Rita “hated the child and could hardly bring herself to hold him.”

Weddie would go on to become a boy wonder of sorts. As a child he built a wireless station on the top of the Ansonia and broadcasted to three states. 

At age 12 he testified before Congress as an expert on wireless communication. By age 14 he held patients on several gadgets. 

In 1900 Rita sued for divorce. On April 5, 1900 The New York Times reported that “It has been known for some time that there was a rupture of the friendly relations existing between the couple, but the utmost secrecy is being observed as to the details of the case.”
Rita actually left the marriage before entering the papers for divorce. She and her mother were living in a beach mansion in the village of Quogue in Southampton on Long Island’s South Shore when the suit arrived on her husband’s desk, this was at about the same time that the ground-breaking for the Ansonia began.

For Stokes, representing himself in court (Which he often did) this time was a very bad idea. His wife’s lawyer was the noted courtroom battler Max Steuer. (below)

An emergent from Austria-Hungary, Steuer had no reason the fear Stokes money and power since he was deeply connected to the bosses at Tammany Hall, especially John F. Curry and was a delegate to the New York state constitutional convention.

Perhaps his most famous case was the defense of the factory owners after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in March 1911 when a factory fire killed one hundred forty-six women, adolescent girls, and men. 

 The shop owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had locked the escape routes from the building.

Never have two men been so guilty of manslaughter then in that case, yet Steuer got them acquitted largely due to his brutal cross-examination and impeachment of one of the surviving employees. He went on to defend sports promoter Tex Rickard, banker Charles E. Mitchell and former Attorney General Harry Daugherty. 

In court Rita said that her marriage was and unhappy one largely due to Stokes unmanageable temper and the physical beatings against her. Almost needless to say, Rita walked away from the marriage with a settlement of nearly two million dollars, a record for the time and worth about $25 million today. She also got an additional $36,000 a year in support, the largest settlement ever granted

Of course Stokes wanted something in exchange for his considerable generosity. He wanted his son Weddie. That was fine with Rita who could care less about the child. She gave him up without a second thought and would not see him again for another sixteen years. Stokes wisely placed the child in care of his two spinster and deeply religious sisters Caroline and Olivia.

Rita came to no good in the end. She was a spend thrift and a horrible investor who eventually was forced to declare bankruptcy. She went through another divorce, suffered a decade of poor health and two nervous breakdowns. She died in 1968, near penniless, at age 54 of pernicious anemia (Due to a poor diet in her case) at the Gotham Hotel in New York.

He was always in some sort of trouble with women. In 1902 while the 50-year-old bachelor was riding in his carriage, he was flagged down Lucy Ryley who was leaning out her bedroom window. In 1907 Lucy sued Stokes for child support, claiming he is the father of her four-year-old son. Stokes denied it of course and won his case in court on a legal technicality despite the fact that Lucy had proven they were intimate and that Stokes had given her regular payments for child support. Lucy disappeared forever after that. However, because of the problem with Lucy, from therein Stokes actually had women that he was with sign statements that they had been with other men. He felt this would protect him from claims that he alone could be responsible if any of these women became pregnant.

In 1910 Helen Elwood (Above)of Denver, Colorado, moved into the Hotel Ansonia as the guest of Dr. and Mrs. Wilbur A. Hendryx and Stokes noticed. Helen was privately educated in Catholic schools and on a six month learning tour of Europe with his sister.

They were married a year later on February 11, 1911 in Jersey City, N.J., by a college classmate of Stokes. (The scuttlebutt at the time said that the marriage did violate a clause in the divorce agreement that ended his first marriage. Supposedly he wasn't allowed to re-marry although the restriction applied only to New York State, which might be why he insisted his second marriage take place in New Jersey. Stokes was 58 years old Helen was 24 however Stokes listed his age as "over 45." on the marriage certificate. It was reported that when Helen’s mother learned who her daughter had married, she fainted.  

Just four months after he met Helen Elwood, on June 7, 1911, Stokes became involved in what became known as The Case of the Shooting Show Girls when Stokes was shot three times in the leg by a 22 year old vaudeville actress, Lillian Graham, in the Varuna apartment house, at 80th and Broadway.

Stokes at met Graham in 1906 when John Singleton, millionaire and Stokes partner in the gold-rich Yellow Aster mine in California, came to the Ansonia with his wife, Stella Graham Singleton and her sister, Lillian, an eighteen-year-old would-be actress. Stokes began his affair with the teenager that week.

In the shooting incident, Graham (She was booked in vaudeville as “The Great Emotional Psychic Actress,) maintained that Stokes had attacked her and her friend Ethel Conrad, another actress, (Who listed her occupation as “dressmaker’s model”) because he was enraged by her refusal to return letters he had written her. 

To protect themselves, the girls, both of whom had pistols, shot Stoke sin the legs three times.  Stokes added that just before he was shot, three Japanese men, house servants who were setting up a dinner party across the hall, ran in and attacked him with jiu-jitsu moves. When police arrived they found Stokes bleeding on the floor and clutching a pistol he always carried with him.

The trial became an enormous tabloid news story, filling the Ansonia’s lobby with reporters, tourist and the curious. Stokes never once left his rooms at the hotel to testify in court, citing a variety of illnesses among them, he said that on December 12, a specialist, Dr. Bolton Bangs, operated on him at the Ansonia for an “abscess of the left kidney.” In an operation that took less than 45 minutes to perform. Pretending to be ill, actually pretending to be one step from death, to avoid court became his favorite ploy through dozens of law suits.

In court, Stokes counter claimed that she had been trying to blackmail him and that she had indeed attacked him, but Graham was found not guilty. The New York Times disputed the verdict by writing that the women were indisputably guilty but that Stokes’s "moral character and social worth" were so low that, basically, he deserved to be shot by someone.
A few days after the trial Lillian Graham and Ethel Conrad returned to vaudeville at the Victoria Theatre in a song and dance routine dubbed “Lillian Graham and Ethel Conrad in songs – Miss Graham at the piano.”

The New York Times wrote that the women “were not liberally applauded.” In fact they were booed and hissed and some audience members threw trash at them. A bounced was called out and “walked up and down the aisles frowning. Finally he sat on the orchestra rail facing the audience ready, it appeared, to leap upon troublemakers. His services were not required.”

The act quickly faded away. Graham brought a suit for $100,000 for malicious prosecution W. E. D. Stokes which she lost. The judge called it a “misguided publicity stunt” The last that was heard from Lillian Graham was in 1914 when she announced she was marrying a wealthy man from back home in Washington State. And that was the last the world ever heard of her. 

Also in 1914, Ethel Conrad attempted moved to Hollywood where she hoped to follow her sister, Frances Pierce, into the movie business. But Francis was struck and killed by a car and shortly Ethel tried to kill herself by swallowing dichloride of mercury tablets. She survived and shortly afterwards she too, disappeared from the world stage. 
Three years later Helen gave birth to their son, James, in Denver, while staying at her mother’s house. On December 29 1915 their daughter Muriel was born at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York City.

In the middle of all this, in the summer of 1916, W. E. D. Stokes retired to his Kentucky horse farm to write a book called “The Right to be Well Born: Horse Breeding in its Relation to Eugenics” in which he suggests that the solution to the world social ills is in fixing poor breeding habit, I.E. the sterilizing of “defective” humans. He suggested that careful selection and breeding of human stock would improve the race and that legislators pass a law requiring the registration of the laboring classes so that they might reproduce their actual value, and so that employers, by looking up the genealogical records of prospective employees, could estimate the amount and quality of the work of which they were capable. The books publishers sued Stokes to recover $5,000 which they had spent on the publication of this book.

In late 1918 Helen moved her family, including her husband to a brownstone a few blocks away from the Ansonia because she believed that a hotel was no place to raise a family. 
A month later, on New Year’s night, Helen and her second cousin Hal Billig, went out to a series of parties. W.E.D. begged off and stayed home complaining of a slight cold. Stokes and Billig return later than Stokes thinks appropriate and a three way argument broke out that ended when Stokes walked out and moved back to the Ansonia. Divorce papers followed.

 Before that ugly incident, the public got its first hint of trouble brewing between the Stokes was on November 4 1917, jewels valued in the tens of thousands of dollars belonging to Helen Stokes were stolen from a locked suitcase while she traveled by train from Denver to New York. Detectives believed that Stokes arranged the theft in hopes of discovering some of the jewelry had been given to her by another man. 

Stokes sued his wife for infidelity, naming twelve men—including his own son— with whom he claimed she’d had sex. His lawyers assured him that if they could prove that Helen had committed adultery, he could end their marriage without paying her nay money. 
Stokes presented the court a letter from Weddie, for whom Stokes had just transferred ownership of the Ansonia, to back up his claim. The letter read

My Darling Pop:
I am sorry to say I was intimate with Helen at the Narragansett Pier this fall.
WED Stokes Jr. 

Helen Elwood Stokes sued Weddie for $1 million over the assertion. Stokes also named her lovers as Edgar T. Wallace, wealthy California oil man, Hal C. Billig, a playboy millionaire clubman (Billig later sued Stokes for $50,000 damages) Will H. Meyers, Roland Miller, her stepbrother, George Edwin Schroeder, mining engineer, and Hal C. Billig, her cousin, Elliott Brown, a roommate of her half-brother, Victor Miller, at Yale, who shared the room with Weddie when he was in town. The suit also named S. M. Roosevelt, an artist, who had died just before the trial started.

In the case of Roosevelt, a chauffeur who worked for Roosevelt testified that he entered the studio unexpectedly and saw Helen attired in a kimono and smoking a cigarette, sitting in front of an easel containing the picture of a nude woman smoking a cigarette but no such picture could be found in the artist’s collection.  

It is still considered one of the dirtiest and mean spirited divorces of its time and it captured the attention of millions of newspaper readers which is what Stokes seemed to want. The divorce and separation suits, when added together, created one of the longest matrimonial trials ever held in this county with litigation that probably costs more than $2,000,000.


Stokes told Helen that he would divorce her “by fair means or foul” and he meant it. He had her shadowed by detectives, (In turn, Helen hired her own detectives, the most notable was W. C. Dannenberg, a legendary Chicago investigator. Dannenberg found a dictograph in Helen’s hotel suite.) chauffeurs and other employees, who made reports on all her actions and circulated rumors among the servants that she slept had been guilty of misconduct with his son, “Weddie,” at the farm near Lexington, Ky., during the summers of 1912 and 1913.

Helen and WED Stokes children

 He told her several times a day that there was something between her and “every man who looked at her;” that “throughout their married life the plaintiff frequently caused and procured strange men to sleep in the same apartment in which she lived,” and that at 2 a.m. on October 7, 1918, she awakened and found her husband standing over her with a drawn revolver in his hand pointing in her direction and “That plaintiff has, for many years, been addicted to the use of drugs and has thereby become habitually so morose and ill-natured in his disposition and so filthy and degraded in his personal habits, and generally so coarse, disgusting and loathsome as a man, that life with him has become intolerable”  He also paid a New York City detective to link her with a murderer. 

In the middle of the divorce Stokes decided that his wife had not only been a prostitute before her met but she worked for the notorious Everleigh Sisters in Chicago prior to moving to New York City in 1910. The purpose of the prostitution charge was to have custody of two children taken from Helen.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson testified that two private detectives working for W. E. D. Stokes had asked him to swear he knew Helen from her days as a high dollar prostitute in Chicago, but Johnson, whose life was often as messy as W.E.D. Stokes, admitted he had never met Helen.

The baseless charge that Helen had been a prostitute was picked up by the Illinois authorities who decided to prosecute W. E. D. Stokes, for conspiracy to defame his wife. 
Helen Stokes was her own best witness and she gave as good as she got during cross-examination by one of the country's best lawyers. During questioning about a November 20, 1916 brawl with her husband, her refused to-be-intimidated attitude prevailed over her husband's lawyers Herbert C. Smyth.(Who later moved to Fairfield)

Smith asked “Isn’t it a fact that you injured your husband that day and that he was laid up for five days with the wounds you inflicted?”
“Oh, no, but I defended myself when he choked me.” Mrs. Stokes answered.
“With all I had, my hands and fingernails, I guess.”
“You scratched him good and plenty, didn’t you?”
“I hope I did.”

Stokes lawyers never should have dragged up the issue of physical force being used in the marriage. Stokes ex-wife Rita testified that during Stokes frequently struck her which was followed up by Helen’s testimony that during a quarrel a month after their marriage that “He held me in bed for several hours in the morning,” said Mrs. Stokes. “And when he finally released me I asked him if he were going to pay for some clothing I had ordered. He struck me several times and hurled me against the wall, and told me he was the boss of that household and the sooner I found it out the better it would be for me.”

She added that a few years later Stokes threw her against the wall and pinned her there while his brother, Thomas Stokes, ate a luncheon she had refused to share with him.
“Tom Stokes was an objectionable guest,” she said “and I told my husband that I would not have him there any longer. He talked vilely, called me vile names, and in the presence of Mr. Stokes taunted me often about my husband’s preference for his first wife, saying that Mr. Stokes was sorry from the day he lost her. I left the table and said that Tom Stokes would have to leave. Then my husband slapped me, threw me against the wall and held me there until after Tom Stokes had eaten luncheon. He told me he would hold me a prisoner in the room, behind locked doors, for a week unless I would consent to entertain Tom at my table.”
Tom Stokes was as odd as his brother. In 1918 Thomas Stokes, 73 years old, married a women named Lillyan Marie Loise Kuenemann, age 30 family. He had met her when he was recuperating from stroke at a health camp in the Adirondacks. His first wife, Elizabeth Cosset, died in 1898.

Thomas Stokes family went so far as to get a restraining order against the marriage. But he married her anyway but he was never a fool where money was concerned. When he died on October 9 of 192o, his estate was valued at about $1,000,000. His new bride received only $100,000. Weddie Stokes, Tom’s nephew got a good chunk of the estate along with a gold watch that Weddie’s grandfather had owned as well as stock in Chesapeake Western Railroad. 

In an effort to defend is reputation, W.E.D. Stokes told the court that while they were visiting the home of a Mrs. Phil Kearney that “She (Helen) tore my face to shreds. One of the marks I carry now. She spat in my face and kicked my legs. Then she seized a knife and as I fled from her to the kitchen, the cook came out and saved me.”

Helen took the stand and said that, yes, she had indeed, put her hands on her husband but only to defend herself. “He seized me by the throat, choked and shook me violently” and her lawyers added  “Several times during the month of March, 1911 the defendant, who has the habit of talking aloud with himself, stated in the defendant’s hearing that he intended to bring a big, negro to the defendant’s room, in consequence of which the defendant was greatly frightened and underwent a nervous strain for a long time thereafter, so that she was afraid to go to her room at night for fear the plaintiff might carry out his announced purpose.”

What’s more she said that at various times he forced her to sign other papers, which she believed, were deeds conveying her dower interest in property belonging to Stokes in New York and other states. 

She also said that in the fall of 1911 Stokes asked her to take three men riding in his car and told her later that it was about testing her fidelity

Stokes often told his wife that he was unfaithful and that he had so many women… “Bad women from the streets” ….loitering around his rooms at the Ansonia that she was afraid to go out into the corridor for fear they would attack her. 

But it worked both ways. Stokes said he believed some of those women would throw acid on him, and on one occasion, she said, he came into the house with acid on his clothes, saying a woman had thrown it on him. 

Stokes told her “that one of his women had thrown acid on him; that she was demanding money of him, and that it was necessary that he arrange immediately for the plaintiff and defendant to go south to get away from said woman.”

The Stokes witnesses, many of whom were paid from the Stokes fortune, fumbled and failed and caused more harm than anything else to Stokes case. One primary witness, in fact, a woman billed as a star witness, Emma E. Goodwin, identified Helen Stokes as the woman she frequently saw going up and down the stairway leading to Wallace's apartment where her shop was and then added it was "either Mrs. Stokes or her double." Which gave rise to the theory that witnesses had mistaken another woman for Helen Stokes.

Helen’s former chauffeur, Albert E. Henshaw, testified, badly, that  he had “improper relations” with her, Helen leaped to her feet and screamed, "You're a liar!", after which, under cross-examination, Henshaw explained he did not have sex with her. What he meant by "improper relations," he said, was she offered to pay him to uncover evidence against her husband. Helen interrupted, once more calling him a liar.

The nail in his coffin was “On information and belief on or about June 7, 1911, the plaintiff was shot by one of his mistresses while he was visiting her in her apartment in New York City.”

The jury was out only one hour and eight minutes. They awarded a trust fund of $800,000 to Helen and the two children, and gave her custody as.  Stokes was granted the visiting privilege at any time, with reasonable arrangements. Helen was granted a legal separation with an understanding she would not appeal the divorce decision. She also received $30,000 a year in alimony. 
Helen in about 1945

After being found innocent of conspiring to fix the jury in his divorce against Helen Stokes told the court, “I haven’t very long to live, you know, but I’m going to try to do some good in the time that is left me.”

A year later he left his beloved Ansonia Hotel and moved across the street to an austere four-story brownstone at 238 W. 73d Street.   He was alone in the world. He had outlived all but one of his eight siblings. His wives were gone, so were his children. Weddie and he had stopped talking to each other years before. However in his final year he reconciled with Weddie with whom he left his entire estate.

His estate was probably worth $5,000,000, or slightly more, which, considering the value of a dollar at the time, was an enormous fortune. Although he left far less money than was expected and even after death, lawsuits initiated by him beforehand, or later filed against his estate, continued to drain away his fortune. 

On May 19, 1926, just four days before his 74th birthday, at 11 o'clock in the morning W.E.D. Stokes died of lobar pneumonia. He had been ill for less than a week. None of the family was at his bedside. His nephew, Anson Phelps Stokes, Canon of Washington Cathedral read the funeral services. W.E.D. was buried in Greenwood Cemetery

When Stokes died of the Ansonia fell into the hands of his son Weddie who never cared about the Ansonia and gave its care over to a series of management companies all of which drove the property down. In 1930, the elegant central entrance was bricked up and converted in storefronts.  The Depression closed the buildings once exclusive restaurants and above average kitchens.  What was left was another New York City residence that offered no services and was quickly declining.

According to author and historian Steven Gaines: "Weddie, who as a young man had shown signs of inheriting his father’s brio and eccentricity, aged into a stern, difficult man who was afraid of germs and refused to enter the home of anyone with a cold. He never cared much about the Ansonia and left its operation to a series of management companies, one of which installed a miniature-golf course in the ballroom, and all of which let the building fall into disrepair. The restaurants and kitchens closed with the Depression. Although the Ansonia kept its 'hotel' designation, it turned into a residence with no services. In 1930, the elegant central entrance on Broadway was bricked up and storefronts were installed”

In 1942, in the midst of the world war the metal ornamentation were stripped from the building and converted to material for bullets and tanks.

Stripping the Ansonia 

 All of the magnificent cooper in the building was taken including the old cooling systems and copper pneumatic tubes were stripped out of the walls. The magnificent skylight at the top of the staircase was tarred over to comply with blackout regulations, and was never corrected.

Three years later in 1945, at the wars end Weddie Stokes sold the Ansonia to Samuel Broxmeyer, for about $2,500,000. But Broxmeyer was a hustler who drove the building downward rapidly and eventually served five years in prison for tampering with tenants rents.  The building was sold at bankruptcy auction for $40,000.     

By 1955, the Ansonia’s once fabulous grand apartments had been divided into studios and one-bedroom units. Then in 1968 former opera singer Steve Ostrow rented the abandoned basement swimming pool and turned it into a luxurious gay bathhouse with a renowned cabaret where Bette Midler played with Barry Manilow as her accompanist

When the Continental Baths was closed in 1977 and the new club was opened, Plato’s Retreat, a swingers club for heterosexual couples. A sex shop moved into a street-level storefront. Trouble followed of course.

 Single men who were denied admission to Plato’s (It was open to single women or couples) began to cluster in front of the building and solicit women. One of the building’s maintenance workers made a hole in the wall of the basement that looked into Plato’s and charged $2 for a few minutes’ peek.

 Both the Continental Baths and Plato’s became world famous but in 1980 Mayor Ed Koch ordered the club closed due to health concerns.

Adding to the buildings decline New York’s housing codes and laws were changed and residential hotels fell under the protection of the Rent Stabilization Board. As a result the Ansonia’s owner decided to demolish the building. But a petition drew 25,000 signatures and on March 15, 1972 the Ansonia Hotel became a landmark.  In 1990, the Ansonia’s became a condo.

Weddie Stokes went on to graduate from Andover, Yale, and the US Naval Academy and earned a law degree from the University of Chicago. (His father gave Weddie a $6,000 a year expense account. At the time the national average income was about $3,000)  
He served as naval officer in war time and wrote a book about the connection between the stock market and the stars and compiled a detailed history of the Stokes family, covering 1,000 years. He became a co-founding the much respected Berkshire Country (Mass.), Day School.

He married Florence Crittenton in 1926 and divorced her in 1930, the same year he took control of the Nevada Central Railroad.  The couple met on Merritt Island after he beached his 55 foot yacht in front of her property. It took him only three days to propose to her. In 1932, when the depression hit, the courts allowed him to reduce his alimony payments to her from $16,000 a year to $6,000 a year, claiming his income had been reduced from $105,000 a year to $13,000, still about double the national income. Weddie told the court that the market crash had wiped out several sources of his income.

In 1938 he later married Lucia Houston Hobson, the daughter of Richmond Pearson Hobson, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. That marriage lasted for 53 years before her death in 1991. They had two children, a son and daughter.

Weddie invested wisely and avoided most of the downfalls that made his father’s life so interesting but dramatic. In 1958, at age 62, he bought the 12 acre Thistlewood estate (Below) in Lenox Massachusetts. Weddie had lived off and on in the Lenox area since the 1920. Weddie and his wife lived in the house for the next 30 years.  He was 96 years old when he died in 1992. 

The Berkshire Eagle wrote his obituary "Mr. Stokes was known in Lenox — and in much of South Berkshire County — as a curmudgeonly critic of a wide range of practices, from intemperate use of gasoline and banks' imposition of high interest charges to vandalism in town parks. He was also an inveterate writer of letters to the editor." 

No comments: