By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services
I have recently embarked on a journey . . . a journey through the papers of Constance Coolidge* (1892-1973). The MHS houses many incredible and fascinating collections yet I am rarely swept up the way that I am with this one. Turning each page of the collection carefully, I am full of eager anticipation to learn what will happen next and have been literally on the edge of my seat!
Constance Crowninshield Coolidge was as Bostonian as one could be. She was a descendant of the Adams, Amory, Coolidge, Copley, Crowninshield, and Peabody families. She even received regular relationship advice from her financial guardian, Uncle Charles Francis Adams (1866-1954), written on his ‘Secretary of the US Navy’ stationary. I am only just beginning to learn about Constance and her world. Like a fascinated spectator, I am enthralled by her life and her lifestyle, and am falling for her infamous charms—as did all who knew her. Constance was loved by many men and admired by many more. Better than a scene from the Great Gatsby, each letter, item, and photograph in the collection is striking, provocative, sometimes sad, at other times delightful, or simply shocking.
Here is a sampling of some of the letters and photographs along with a postcard and telegraph found in the collection.
On Thursday, 22 November 1923, Felix concludes a letter to Constance with:
“I Love you, sweet Constance, and I can hardly wait to hold you in my arms again. Don’t be angry with me, I really don’t deserve it. Can’t we dine together Saturday night?
Just a few days later, on Saturday, 24 November 1923, Constance receives a letter from Eric (roughly transcribed):
“I don’t want to hurt you, but I believe more that it won’t affect you much, You haven’t even taken the time to answer my last cable, and I’m beginning to think you are incapable of feeling anything serious, or of realizing how much you hurt others. Perhaps, however, you don’t read my letters or cables any longer. I have your telegraph and also a most pitiful letter from mother. How she came to know is a mystery – I never told her anything.
For her sake I suppose I suppose I must try [—-] myself and find a job that will keep her alive. If it were not for her I should have no hesitation in killing myself.
It seems impossible to make you feel anything but in case it may make you think twice before treating some other unhappy man in the same way, I [—] you that you have broken my heart and any belief I ever had in human nature.
Remembering what we have been to each other and the hours we have spent together, it is impossible to imagine how you could have brought yourself to do this & in this way.
Your letters are too numerous to return, so I am destroying them. Your [aunts] charm and the watch you gave me I shall send to you.
I should try to forget you altogether, but it would be useless because I still love you. In a new life without friends, beliefs or hopes of any kind, my memories of the racecourse and of will be all that
I have left.
In spite of everything I love you – you may not believe, but I do.
I love you Constance
And those are just two letters, from two lovers, who not only had affairs with Constance, but were completely and wholeheartedly in love with her. She had begun affairs with both of these young men while in still in China as the wife of diplomat Ray Atherton. However, they were not her first. Love letter after love letter can be found in the folders of this collection. Love is also found in the letters of friends and relatives, proof that there was something very special about Constance. Frequently in the limelight and sometimes in the news-paper, as is often the way in high Society, Constance was criticized for her un-lady like ways. She enjoyed things that were typically reserved for men such as horse racing and gambling. Yet, she could care less about what people would say about her and went on living her own independent life.
Biographers often seek this collection, and once you begin to read the letters, the reason quickly becomes apparent. Constance was more than a Boston Brahmin, a Femme Fatale, and world-travelling heiress that lived a life reserved for fiction. She was charm encapsulated in a female figure. She was simply irresistible and she rarely resisted. This, of course had its consequences. A letter dated 8 July 1921 from the wife of Frank Fearon clearly demonstrates:
“ Before your questions could you define friendship for me, not the kind mentioned on paper, but the real thing?
Is it friendship when a woman sneaks off with another woman’s husband for half of the night, without a word to the wife and leaving the latter to find her way home the best she can?
Is it friendship for a woman to who pretends to be another woman’s friend to continually write to the latter’s husband addressing the letter to his office, when he has a home?
Is it friendship where a woman knows she has hurt her so called friend, by carrying on with her husband, to continue hurting her by the same method? …”
While Constance loved Felix, and trailed Eric along, she also had an affair and deep friendship with Harry Crosby. In fact, her photograph was in Harry’s wallet the day he committed murder-suicide with another one of his lovers. Constance was also friends with Caress, Harry’s wife. The affair between Harry and Constance was one of the only affairs that bothered Caress (they had a very open marriage). Perhaps this was because of the emotional connection?
Constance’s social circles and influence brought her in contact with suitors from far and wide. When the famed author H. G. Wells met Constance, the beautiful Boston Belle, he too fell under her spell. The collection contains 46 letters from H. G. Wells to Constance. Some poke fun of her Boston accent as she would walk her “dorg” in the morning.
Constance’s true loves were her horses and horse racing. She took great pride in her award-winning stables and in her success in a field rarely entered by women. Below are some wonderful photographs that Constance sent to her grandmother in a letter that reflect her happiness and joy. As well, they feature her irresistible smile.
Here is a wonderful postcard Constance sent to her father of herself and Katherine Rogers on the beach in their bathing suits.
Constance and Katherine were mutual friends with another fascinating woman, Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor. Letter from the Duchess also appear in this collection.
And finally, I would like to share one of many telegraphs in the collection. This is perhaps the most entertaining telegraph I have ever come across.
My exploration of this collection and this incredible woman are only just beginning. Stay tuned for further findings and more wonderful pieces from the world of Constance!
*The papers of Constance Coolidge are part of the Crowninshield-Magnus Papers at the MHS.